Truth. Such a loaded term. At first it conjures the idea of a younger version of ourselves, at a time in our life when we are learning what it means to be honest, roiling between admitting fault and standing up for ourselves, about finding out we are fallible. It brings back the little decisions we’d made as children (there are always a few that stand out, such as the time you were left alone with your neighbour’s lolly jar or when admitting that you hit your sister because she was frustrating you), in moments where what happened affected more than just ourselves, but those around us. Were you the type of child who understood those consequences? Do you remember when you really began to understand?
It conjures memories of stories, not just fairy tales, but also via visual mediums such as cartoons and family television soaps, then later teenage drama shows where the bad guys went from personifying the antithesis of true morality to someone real, closer to ourselves, where their moral decisions were the crutch of the conflict in each episode or story arc. We were taught how to root for the good and moral character, who in turn valued honesty and truth. You began to expect consequences for characters who made the wrong decision and would eventually see that their dishonesty was the wrong choice. It began to shape how we saw the world, and how we saw ourselves in its context.
Truth is also a guide to learning how to deal with our personal histories and demons. It is a guide to growth, to openness, to learning how to connect with other people. In Veronica A. Shoffstall’s poem ‘After a While,’ she writes “plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.” She speaks to our core, of learning how to nurture and appreciate ourselves with honesty, of making amends with our flaws and accepting them, of understanding that relying on acceptance from other people can bring false satisfaction and security. It is a way to look at ourselves, not with a borrowed rose lens, but our own extra sharp one.
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Truth also lends itself to embracing critical thought and digging deeper. It is about the self-actualisation of who we are; as humans and animals, women or men, as creators, members of society, mothers or fathers, siblings, sons or daughters. It is about pushing boundaries, finding how far we can push ourselves in the face of fear or in the face of a social idiom or construct and admitting what scares us also shapes us. It is about learning what we can achieve in the face of doubt and criticism.
Writing, both fiction and non-fiction can be said to be one process in which we actively search for what is ‘true’. In fiction we have the ability to explore worlds so vastly different or similar to our own that comparisons between our own reality and the fictional one is inevitable. I would argue that the best fiction begs you to ask questions of your own life and of the world around you.
When you look at it in that light, is it fair to ask: is truth subjective? When viewed through the lens of the scientific, we see that the truth of a matter can be ever changing or evolving. A previously tested theory proven wrong, or that yields unexpected or different results, is no longer considered true. What beckons is a new truth, a new way of making sense of the world. As our knowledge evolves, then is the truth just a myth? Is it therefore unobtainable? If so, how do we go about obtaining it?
We might see, as Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher did, “everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” We might see that even the history of our race, our world, or religion is just one well-documented version of what happened. We begin to understand that our tapestry of truth is affected by our own humanity, our flawed ability to recall memories, our inherent bias and ability to deconstruct.
Is the truth a simpler construct then for an animal who bases each decision on instinct? Instinct is the most powerful force in an animal’s life. It is without bias. It doesn’t second guess itself in the face of danger. It provides purpose. It is their truth. For any animal, there is no doubting a decision to flee from a predator, it is a matter of survival, and of their species’ survival that they avoid danger at all costs. Their understanding is primal and based on what they are.
If humanity muddies the truth, is it fair to ask that if by domesticating animals, are we humanising them? Are we teaching them to rely not on instinct, but on a flawed system, a more human system, of knowing the world around them? One only has to recall the skeletal remains of birds whose stomachs were full of plastic drink bottle lids and ring-pulls to understand that the natural truth of the world has been complicated by humanity.
Can our instincts be defined in the same way an animal’s instincts can, and is that the key to understanding the truth? Certainly, if self-preservation at all costs is instinctive to our race, just as it is to an animal’s, then our focus becomes selfish and singular, rather than altruistic and collective. The truth of the world becomes corrupt and our separate lives, begin to have less meaning. Or rather, the meaning changes in a constant state of flux as our priorities change in order to benefit our instincts.
Surely what sets us apart from animals as far as instinct, is our ability to question everything, including ourselves. When we peel back the layers, and try to deconstruct what we know, we are able then to ask; is there such thing as The Truth?
Or is the ultimate and definitive Truth just an illusion?