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Calm • Perspective

Can We Live With the Truth?

We are primed to think well of people who have an appetite for truth: who want to find out the maximum about themselves, the world and the purpose of existence. And we may be accordingly suspicious of those flighty souls who cannot sit still with their own thoughts and must manically escape into varied forms of distraction and denial.

Yet when we have paid due homage to the search for truth and applauded those who want to look at existence with their eyes wide open, something tricky is likely to force its way into our expectful minds. It may not – it seems – be truly possible to take on board the full fundamentals of life, the unvarnished contract at the heart of our presence on the planet, and not want to give up. Whatever our enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge, there appears to be an awkward yet inviolable relationship between remaining alive and not looking at many things too closely. Selective denial may just be the price we have to pay for enduring.

Study of skyline with clouds bathed in orange.
Knud Baade, Cloud Study, 1853

It seems unlikely, for example, that any of us can really face at anything other than a highly abstract level the thought that at some point in the never too distant future, we – with all our plans, our sensitivity, our ideas, our complex problems, the issues with our hair, our favourite recipes, our tangled relations with our parents, our nicknames from childhood, the small pain in our left knee and our tender and hopeful natures – will be wiped out and everything we are and have ever been will grow as dim and meaningless as the lives of the 100 billion or so other humans who have come before us and whose destinies and concerns are as dust to us.

It seems equally impossible that our hugely important societies that are presently working their way through momentous political events, that are pioneering new and more just ways of living, that are caught up in varied scandals and obsessions, that are on the cusp of discovering life-altering machines, will in time – as the sun’s diminishing supply of hydrogen burns up the raging oceans – end up every bit as obscure and irrelevant as those of the Minoans, the Khmers, the Olmecs and the Anasazis, that the beautiful and powerful of our evanescent age will eventually be as faceless as the stars of the Aksumite Empire and the leaders of the Kingdom of Funan, a confident polity that dominated mainland Southeast Asia from the 1st to the 6th centuries AD.

And were we to fall for the touching and sublime dream that it might perhaps be love that could save us and help us endure, that eternal meaning might be found in the care and concern we have for one another, then we would be wise not to look deeply into our own hearts or those of anyone else whose attentions we think would be capable of holding back the entropic forces of the universe. With poignant optimism, we might imagine, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, that it must simply be a piece of temporary bad luck that we have not yet found the love we crave as we set out on yet another date or session with a marriage therapist. It would be as cruel to kill hope here as it would be to violently shake from their chimerical reveries a fervent believer, lying prostate on the ground in an ancient temple, mumbling obscure prayers to an empty sky for the return of a divine figure who never lived.

We have perhaps overdone the case for the truth. We are still here – and taking our plans for the day seriously – because we are somewhere inside us clinging tightly to a raft of necessary fictions: that things could matter, that there might be a point in speaking, that anyone can understand. The only people who have properly looked life in the face are no longer here. Insofar as we’re interested in living, we have no option but to lean heavily on our powers of denial. 

We should want the light of truth to shine very brightly; just never so brightly as to blind us.

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