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Literal Versus Subjective "Truth"

January 19, 2018



The other day I received this text from a fellow I'm working with on a weekly basis:


"Two things. Some guy performed for the first time at open mic night last night, and I didn't think he did a great job, but as he was leaving I told him I really enjoyed his song. I'm torn in those regards. I want to be honest, but I want him to continue doing something in his life that he enjoys. Secondly, I told the most steroided guy in the gym to rerack his weights. I felt so good afterwards."


My response:

"Ha! That's so great. And you didn't get punched out or anything! In terms of the guy at open mic night, it seems to me that there are different kinds of truth, and different levels of honesty. Literal truth, from my point of view, is the lowest form. A much higher form of truth is kindness. Just to consider. "


He asked me to elaborate, and so I followed up with this email:


"See what you think of this:


People mistake concepts and ideas for truth. As humans we tend to assume that there is an objective reality that we can capture and contain in language, and that once truth is bottled up we can explore it conceptually. Language is not truth, however: it just represents truth. Our experience as humans is one hundred percent subjective, at least so far as I can see. As I was saying the other day when we talked, it is an illusion that we objectively experience outside things. When it comes right down to it, all we ever experience is ourselves. "Truth" is subjective, in other words.


You said you felt the guy at the open mic night did not do a great job, and so when you told him you liked his song you felt dishonest. To me this presumes the objective nature of thought and language. What does "great job" mean? According to what perspective? In comparison to what standard? An assessment that says he did or did not do a great job is purely subjective, which is the same as to say it isn't real. It's just a thought, in other words.


The same goes with liking his song or not. What does "liking" mean? According to who? In comparison to what? It seems to me that we are just making things up when we think like this. You had an experience while you listened to his song that you called "not liking" it (or something similar), and so when you told him you liked the song it felt dishonest. But if there is no objective reality in "liking" and "disliking" then honesty or dishonesty is irrelevant. And what is "honest" anyway? Seems to me to be another objective-sounding concept with nothing real to back it up. There is no reality in any of this. It's all empty ideas relating to and interacting with one another.


That's what I mean when I say that the literal is the lowest form of "truth" (which is itself a concept and so essentially meaningless). We can't even really call it "truth" because, as an unexamined concept, it has lost its connection to our subjective experience, which is as close to "truth" as we can get on a content level. To the extent that concepts represent our subjective experience of "truth", and to the extent we are not entangled in the seeming objectivity of the language, then we can can say that they are useful. It's handy to be able to label things we see so that we can communicate them to ourselves and others. On their own, though--without conscious awareness--concepts are not really good for anything, and in fact cause much of the confusion apparent in the world. Watch the politicians argue about ideas and it's obvious: we need a better sort of "truth" than that.


Compare that literal, language-based "truth" to this: you felt something for that guy. It was his first time in front of the mic, you empathized with him, and something moved you to speak to him. He was a stranger to you, but you cared enough about him that you wanted him to continue to show up on stage in that way because you felt it would be good for him. Your heart was involved. This to me speaks of a "truth" that goes way beyond concepts, in the sense that you responded to him from your true nature, from something real and authentic inside of you. That's what I meant when I said that a much higher form of truth is kindness. Kindness is an aspect of who you truly are.


If you wanted to be honest in the literal sense I suppose you could have told the fellow that you admired his guts in getting on stage and that you hoped he would do that again (instead of telling him you liked his song). That would have been literally true. It kind of misses the point, though. The literal truth seems unimportant in comparison to the deeper truth, or reality, that is your authentic being. "Honesty" based upon literal "truth" (ie., unconscious assumption) is not much more than a stick to beat ourselves up with. Consider the fact that there are lots of occasions in life where we're required to lie out of kindness. I'm remembering an example you used once where you wanted to say to someone (and maybe you did--I can't remember): "I hate that sweater." There are situations where it would be appropriate to speak that literal truth and there are others where it would be kinder to say, "The sweater is lovely," or some such thing. The truth in the kindness trumps the literal "truth" any day of the week, at least in my book.


Said another way, it is better to act truly than to think "truly". Honesty is irrelevant when we are acting from our authentic nature, because it's not an issue there. We cannot act dishonestly when we are being our true selves, because there is no other self there to be in conflict with. We are just being and responding from that being.


Let me know what you think. If I've missed the point I trust you'll let me know.


Take care and be well, my friend.


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