What In The Word: Truth(ish)

It is what it is, unless it isn’t.

Truth:  Noun, from the Middle English “treuth.” A verified or verifiable, objective fact.  (“It’s a truth that the sun appears to rise each morning”). Actuality, accuracy. (“We’ve weighed that container several times and the truth is it contains only one pound of flour”). Fundamental reality apart from personal opinion or experience (“I know it feels as though that blanket is wet, but in truth, it’s simply cold”).

Related to the word “true,” which can mean, among other things: Calibrated correctly (“Both of us checked the scale and it weighs true”), or possessing honor and integrity (“She’s a good woman and true”).

Not to be confused with “truism.” More about that in a moment…

We talk about truth a lot, and claim it to support this position or that, but does it exist?  It does, but it suffers from the same ailment that afflicts other words representing important things, such as “love.” If you ask someone if he loves you, whatever he answers, you’d better ask more questions. The two of you may be staring at the same word but not agreeing on its meaning. You both think you know what it means, but if you go off acting on the assumption that you agree on that meaning without discussing it, you’re probably going to find out that you don’t.

So it is with “truth.”  There are two main sorts of truth and often we don’t distinguish between them. Like the difference between a house cat and a tiger, the details are likely to matter to you at the most inconvenient time.

There is the obvious meaning, “verifiable, objective fact.” Gravity, for example. As any kid can tell you who has jumped off the roof while believing for all he’s worth, gravity doesn’t yield to opinion. Neither does the ground. “I shot an arrow in the air. It fell to earth, I know not where.” But you do know it fell, somewhere. Enough things have been propelled upwards in Earth’s atmosphere for us to feel comfortable saying that they come down, eventually. We’ve measured, observed, experimented, and gravity is a fact.

The other sort of truth is true in a cloudier sense. I meditate, and follow a recorded meditation. Near the beginning, it calls on me to accept whatever I’m feeling as my “inner truth of the moment.” Note the important modifiers — “inner” and “of the moment.” Interior truth is more flexible than objective truth. Where objective truth demands evidence and proof, interior truth is a reflection of your own experience. It is true, for you. Not necessarily for everyone else.

This doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. In a very real way, your opinion is your life. Your life is made up of your experiences, and those are colored by your point of view. Two people can go through the same events and have different experiences.

If you heard my Dad recount an event you’d both been through, you weren’t likely to recognize it, even if you knew which event he was talking about. Listening to him regale someone with his version of the event, I’d sit there thinking, “That isn’t at all what happened! I was there!”  Useless to argue with him. He made his life bearable by editing it as he went so it all ended up in some form that he liked. Nobody could convince him that wasn’t the way it happened. For him, that was the way it happened.

It was his “inner truth of the moment.” Since he believed the story, that was the experience he had, so for him, it was the truth. That nobody else’s experience was close to that didn’t make it less true for him.

For a less-extreme version… let’s say that you don’t believe in gold. Stick with me here. You absolutely do not believe that gold exists, so of course it has no value — it’s not real. So even if there are gold nuggets lying around that you could pick up, you won’t, because you won’t look for them, because for you, they aren’t real, and even if there’s something on the ground, it can’t be gold, because gold doesn’t exist. No matter how much gold objective fact can prove is around you, in your world, there is no gold.

Inner truth is valuable — figuring out what your inner truth is can tell you a lot about yourself. Working on your inner truth can improve your personal experience, and thus the quality of your life. Your experience improves according to your interpretation.

But inner truth is not objective truth. Where we stumble is in trying to substitute one for the other — by claiming our own subjective, inner truths for objective, verifiable facts.  When you’re trying to, say, build a bridge or design a government program, objective truth is the material to use and as much of it as we can get — randomized scientific testing, measurements, etc. Inner truth is useful for deciding if we want to do something or how important we think it is, but not for actually designing the nuts and bolts of the program.

Inner truth and objective truth are both useful, for different things, but not interchangeable, any more than tweezers and a hammer would be. They’re both tools — but they aren’t the same.

Oh, and about “truism…”  Note the “ism” on the end. In general, “ism” is a suffix that indicates action on a belief, or the formation of a set of principles. In this case, truism doesn’t refer to a dedication to the truth. It refers to things that appear true and may or may not actually be true, such as cliches — things that have been repeated so much they feel true. “A watched pot never boils,” for example. Well, if you’re patient enough to watch a pot of water left on high enough heat for a long enough period of time, you’ll see it boil. So this isn’t objective truth. It talks about the frustration of waiting and how things you look for seem to take longer to arrive. Inner truth.

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