Monday, September 17, 2018

Knowing The Truth

My mother says that when I was young, I would call out, "Mower!" whenever Dad fired up the lawnmower. It was a cry of recognition, of excitement, perhaps of anticipation, a marker of something I understood about the world around me. One day a noisy VW Beetle passed us. I leapt to the car window (we didn't always wear seat belts back then) and shouted, "Mower!" No one told me that I was wrong. Indeed, they thought my mistake so cute that the family adopted the term. To this day, we often refer to Beetles as Mowers.

And they were Mowers, at least until I began to learn more about the world beyond my family. I'm pretty sure I even argued with other children about the term, insisting that they were wrong when they used the bizarre appellation of "Beetle," or worse, "Bug." Over time, however, I began to adopt the perspective of the rest of the people and today I know the truth.

It's a universal human experience, this discovery that "truth" changes based on our perspective. We've all heard the ancient parable (probably of Hindu derivation) of the five blind men describing an elephant using their sense of touch: the man feeling the trunk thought the elephant was like a snake, the one feeling the tail described it as a rope, while the ones with their hands on the ear, the tusk, and the flank described a fan, spear, and wall respectively. It's a cautionary tale about perspective, a warning that none of us, ever, is capable of seeing the full picture. Every "truth" we possess is a matter of perspective.

Indeed, we are more mistaken than correct, because we are limited to our singular perspective, a unique take on the world that is fed by what we are capable of sensing as filtered through our memories. Our brains interpret the present as a continuation of the past, the narrative we have been creating about the nature of our world since before we were born. If we have lived an experience of pain and trauma, then that tends to become our perspective, the stuff of the next step in the story we perceive from our singular viewpoint of this life. If we have lived an experience of love and connection, then that tends to become the story we create of the world, even when there is pain and trauma.

Physicists tell us that time doesn't exists, at least not as a foundational principle of the universe, that it is a "mistake" of our human perspective. The illusion of time, some think, is a product of our memories, that we perceive its flow because our memories continually connect the present to what already exists in or memories, causing us to perceive life as an ongoing story of cause and effect. It's why we can remember the past and not the future, even though both exist simultaneously.

It's a slippery notion, one that I seems to run away from me whenever I think I comprehend it. It's a truth that I can glimpse even as I can't fully comprehend it, just as I at first doubted those who would told me those noisy cars were called Beetles instead of Mowers. It requires a shift in perspective and that, it seems to me, can only be done by creating new memories, ones that will ultimately "flow" into a present in which I do understand.

I'm thinking these doughy thoughts about these things as we start the new school year, wondering especially at the two-year-olds who are taking their first steps away from the known universe of their families. They arrive each morning bearing their unique perspectives, ones comprised of truths that are now in jeopardy as they engage the wider world. Compared to me, their memories are short, not so full of the kind of fixed "truths" that make it so much harder on adults when we are forced to shift our perspective.

Over the next few weeks and months and years, over spans of time that don't even exist when we consider the grand scale of the universe, these children will be discovering a world of Beetles, where Mowers once existed. From day to day, their perspectives will change, which is, in the end, the essence of learning. They will find new aspects of truth, even as we know that all truth is incomplete, but for a time it will be their unique truth, a perspective that is their's and their's alone, a perspective without which the world would be incomplete.

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