The search for “truth” vs. the search for truth

Note: Day wibbledy-two of the #Trust30 initiative.

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. If we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Absolutists love to exercise the nuclear option in an argument.

You’ve seen the badge on the rusted-out pickup that has the little Darwin fish being eaten whole by the larger fish that says “TRUTH” in it.

Far from a rational counter-argument, it’s a full-nuclear response to a (questionably) humorous tweak, saying “Oh yeah, well you’re a liar!” But then, it’s a bit unwise to expect a nuanced response from fundamentalists who are compelled to decorate their car with retaliatory badges.

I’m not offended by much, but I take offense to this particular sentiment. Because it says to me that if asked, this person would unquestionably say they are either 1) On a quest for truth, or more likely 2) in possession of the entirety of truth, distilled into roughly 2000 pages.

Most of the people I know and associate with would find that as ludicrous as I do. However, nearly all of us subscribe to this fallacy in one form or another. I’ve been trying to break that cycle in my life, and here are some things I’ve learned.

Like the pickup driver who apparently eats Darwin fish for breakfast, I have always been sure I was on a quest for truth. So is my quest for truth real, or just a quest for confirmation of the things I already believe?

To test that, here are 3 differences between the search for “truth” and the search for Truth:

1. Whether you’re questioning the basic assumptions your search is based on.

If you’re not questioning your fundamental beliefs, then you’re on a quest for comfortable “truths”, and I can only bid you good luck. But if you’re willing to stretch out, you’ll have to diversify your portfolio of worldviews.

The best way I’ve found to do this is to view your assumptions from the perspective of someone who doesn’t share them. Not in an oh-it’s-cute-they-believe-that way, but in a serious, studious way. If you’re a Christian, you owe it to your faith to study the thoughts of alternate religions and atheists (those who have considered your worldview and disagree) and ancient philosophers/Eastern religious leaders (those who never shared your worldview).

You’ll find some dramatic differences among them, but more importantly, common threads that start to emerge in line with your personal experience. These threads will start to map out your personal path to happiness. My understanding so far is that this is a decades-long process, but perhaps I’m a little slow.

2: Whether you’re willing to let go of old assumptions when finding a better set.

My search for capital-t-Truth has taken me to some powerfully uncomfortable places, having shaken me to my very core and kept me up many nights. I’ve heard several describe it identically: as “going out into the cold”, often followed by returning to the warmth of the familiar.

But when you return to the warmth of the familiar, it’s not yours anymore. You’ve now seen that there’s more out there, and life is eventually going to push you back outside, because you’ve been called on your own personal Hero’s Journey.

For me, a truth is like a pry-bar that eventually cracks open a deeply-held belief or assumption. That process can take months, or even years, depending on how stubborn I am at the moment.

And a weird phenomenon I’ve experienced is that at the very moment you decide you’re willing to let go of old assumptions, you’ll find that many better ones had been rolling around in the back of your mind for a while. As you take these newer assumptions for a spin, everything starts making more sense. It’s like exchanging someone else’s pair of glasses for your own prescription.

3: Whether you’re willing to act on the truth you discover.

This is the part I struggle with the most. As the possessor of truth, you are now held to the standard of that truth. Not by some outside force, but because you can’t believe one thing, do another, and be completely at peace.

It can be difficult to feel acceptance when you don’t have a non-changing set of beliefs to bond you to a group of people. You can feel like the outsider, that you’re the person that doesn’t “play ball”. Your only options at that point are to let go of your need for acceptance, or be really quiet about your beliefs. I haven’t entirely figured out this one yet.

One of the hardest parts of a quest for truth is being willing to make decisions with the best information you have at the time, never knowing if it will be the right thing down the road. This is especially true when making life-altering decisions for my child. But I believe this method is a damn sight better than making decisions based on a “a sure knowledge” that later proves to be untrue, then feeling the need to justify them.

The hardest part of all has to do with relationships. As much as I value my quest for truth, I value the relationships in my life more. A person on a quest for truth can be hard to rely on in a relationship, because while their compass always points north, that north is constantly moving. I frequently have to beg the forgiveness of a wife who joined a journey with me, only to have the destination keep changing.

Quest for truth == Quest for happiness?

Lastly, perhaps not everyone equates the search for truth with the search for happiness. I find joy in truth and in attempting to live truly, and I assume that would work for most everyone. But that’s another one of my assumptions, and one I can’t easily test. Basically, YMMV.

What I will say is that walking away from many of my most cherished assumptions and beliefs has altered me dramatically. I’m much happier, more accepting of myself and others, and more able to roll with life’s punches. (This, in itself, invalidates one of the dogmas I held, that true happiness was only achievable through my existing set of beliefs, but that’s another story…)

If I don’t somehow mangle my relationships in the process, I have to follow where this path leads. If I abandon the quest to preserve a relationship, I guess I’ve found the trump card to this entire argument.

Is truth beauty? Will it set you free? Will it “bring us out safe at last”? So far, yes. In the future… I sure hope so.

  • Benjamin Jordan

    Heavy stuff man, sounds like you needed to get something off your chest.

  • SoftArtisans Team

    “A person on a quest for truth can be hard to rely on in a relationship, because while their compass always points north, that north is constantly moving”–As the compass-holder, I know that’s true. Though if my compass ever leads me anywhere near the darwin-eating Jesus fish, I will not blame my other half for skeddadling.