Saturday, April 17, 2010

right for the wrong reasons

Looking back with a somewhat rueful smile, I find myself glad that I set out to seek "the truth." Leaving aside whatever neurotic foundations such a quest might have, I think there are at least two closely-linked benefits that come with such a quest: 1. There is some excellent education that can accrue and 2. seeking something that might be called "the truth" can lead to an honest search for the truth.

In my life, the most noticeable example of such a quest may have been in my five years as a newspaper reporter. Like a lot of reporters, I began my newspaper work full of ideals and aspirations -- to dig out the facts that constituted "the truth" of whatever story I was working on. Naturally, the more juicy the story, the more heinous the skulduggery involved, and the more I uncovered the facts ... the happier I was. I was finding the story behind the story, the facts that would help people to see the connivers and liars and self-deceivers for what they were ... not just in the political arena (which didn't interest me much) but in public attitudes and mores.

I was helping. I was working for the public good. I was digging out the facts that readers had no time or interest in digging out. I was looking for the truth and the truth consisted in adducing enough evidence, enough facts, so that matters became clear and "true."

But as I look back, the most important aspect of all this bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed outlook was that I was serious about it. I believed my own rhetoric and was willing to put my own beliefs to the test; I was willing to be wrong because "the truth" was more important than my beliefs or facts or anything else. Why this should be so, I can only guess. But it was so ... and it led me in ways that I now see as useful and productive. It led me to seek the truth after having imagined I was seeking the truth.

News stories, for example, are composed of facts as best they can be gathered. But no matter how many facts anyone -- inside a news-gathering organization or keeping an eye on the spaghetti water -- could bring to bear, there is always something left out. To follow a story wherever it leads means that it leads to a place where "wherever" does not exist. There is no such thing as "the whole story" in ordinary terms.

For example, I once took it into my head to actually dig into a story about a kid who was brought up on drug charges -- the kind of tale that ordinarily occupied a three-paragraph synopsis in the police-log section of the paper. Those three paragraphs contained the name of the accused, the how and where of the arrest, the plea, the hearing and the sentence.

But it struck me that such three-paragraph summations, while gossip-worthy, hardly touched what touched the people involved ... the accused, his parents, the cops, the court ... and I began to dig in. But the story went on and on and on and on in every-widening ripples of fact and understanding and emotion. It was the kind of endlessness that I and others might console themselves about: "You have to gather the relevant facts and make a judgment."

And that's what people do -- gather the facts and make a judgment ... based on their own laziness or self-satisfaction. Stories do not have edges ... they go on and out in all directions, each fact touching the next and the next and the next. It is only a kind of human smugness that allows anyone to believe they have "the whole story" on which to base their well-modulated or over-enthusiastic judgments. It was a frustrating recognition for someone whose agitprop department sent out endless press releases about the facts and the truth and the worthiness of seeking "the truth."

If there was no way to get "the whole story," if everything invariably spread its wings in all directions ... what then was the truth? I was flummoxed within. My own search for the truth had fallen on its undeniable face. And within that framework, I might do one of two things -- forgive my own noble-sounding aspirations and go along with the well-groomed crowd or find something that more adequately addressed the truth I claimed to want.

I chose the latter course and became involved in spiritual endeavor ... approaching it as a vehicle for the truth ... approaching it with the same idealism and verve I had once brought to newspapering. This was a world that was going to reveal the truth, that was going to make me good, that was going to crack some nut I seemed hell-bent on cracking.

And as with newspapering, I worked pretty hard at it. This is not so say I was ever much good at the Zen Buddhism I ended up with, but it is to say that I could be earnest and sincere and compliant and rebellious by turns. The good thing about Zne was that it didn't sit still for any nonsense about "the whole story" or "the truth."

And I would not recommend Zen Buddhism to anyone, but I would say I feel lucky to have put myself on a path that offered the tools that would go beyond bias and virtue and truth and falsehood. I was lucky to have found a way to seek out the truth after having chosen a way "to seek out the truth."

The goofs I made, both in newspapering and in spiritual endeavor, have been excellent educators -- real, no-bullshit educators... the kind that don't rely on anyone else's profound or shallow observations ... the kind that are much less afraid of criticisms ... the kind that acknowledge intellect and emotion, but refuse to see them as "the whole story"... except in the sense that they are the whole story.

I was right ... for the wrong reasons, but these days, the wrong reasons strike me as pretty damned right and I say thank you very much.

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