Oct 302011

“To know the truth is to enter with our whole persons into relations of mutuality with the entire creation—relations in which we not only know, but allow ourselves to be known.”

                    Parker J. Palmer in To Know as We Are Known
Twice each month, for more than eight years now, I have participated in a “Socrates Café”—a space where a small group explores what we have come to know and how is it we came to know what we know…our individual and collective epistemologies. During our time together, we try to remain “in the question.” Even sentences ending in periods, extend, rather than end, inquiry and exploration.
A path we have traversed many times over the eight years wends its way around the meaning of truth. In virtually any Socratic journey related to truth we inevitably come to a fork in the road. Is truth, we ask, objective or subjective? Objective truths do not depend on cultural or even individual journeys and experiences. They are universal…shared and honored by all of humanity. To follow the path upon which truth is subjective is to accept that truth can diverge in different parts of the world, in different cultures or even in different people. “Well, that’s my truth” we exclaim, as if that closing salvo wins the day in an argument.
In more than eight years, 200 sessions and 400 hours, we have yet to decide if either or both paths to truth are valid.
I have loved Parker Palmer’s work, wisdom and insights since discovering his book The Courage to Teach more than ten years ago. In an earlier, recently discovered, work To Know as We Are Known, Parker offers a fascinating insight into truth. We mislabel truth, perhaps even do it violence, he suggests, if we use either moniker: objective or subjective.
When we view truth as objective, we build a wall between it and humanity. Objective truth stands alone and apart. We lay claim to truth as an aspect of the Universe outside of us as participants in the play. It is what the scientific method has asked us to believe is the only valid truth. It is a truth outside of, and unchanged by, humanity.
When we see truth as subjective, we may keep our personal relationship to the way we see the Universe, but we separate ourselves from each other. Each of us, bearing our own truth, becomes a beacon unto our individual self. My truth is mine, yours is yours and neither need interfere or intertwine with the other. “Well, that’s my truth” draws a wall between us that may never be pierced.
So if sliding truth gently into either envelope—objective or subjective—serves to separate us, either from the world or each other, what then? It is from this place of confusion that Parker reminds us that the word truth has the same Germanic root as the word troth. As in betrothal, troth is a covenant we make with another in which we understand that our futures together shall be forever intertwined.
So truth, Parker suggests is not an objective or subjective set of facts or opinions. It is instead a covenant we make with each other, and with knowing itself, to explore the world together…opening ourselves to many perspectives…and allowing the possibility of being rendered anew each and every moment as we encounter the world with open minds and hearts. It is to “enter with our whole persons into relations of mutuality with the entire creation.”
If this troth is to be true and honest, the search for truth requires obedience and vigilance—obedience to the covenant into which we have entered and vigilance in our commitment to both know and be known. As with all of life, truth is an often messy, confusing journey…not a clean, well-manicured destination.
Oct 152011
Note: The following will be published in the November/December Issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. It is reprinted with permission.
“At the deepest level, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient…only the universe rearranging itself.”
                                                            Jon Kabat-Zinn
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So too are gifts. I have learned this in many ways, but none more poignant than the hundreds of heart-wrenching moments spent on the suicide hotline with those whose lives became so difficult they contemplated ending them. I am thankful that instead, they reached out for help.
A major portion of training for suicide intervention involves learning how to gently enter a conversation by taking time to connect deeply with the caller, trying to understand what it is about life that makes it so unbearable. We ask, “Why do you want to die?” Through deep listening and empathy—the essence of our natural human ability to truly converse—we build a relationship that allows us, at some sacred moment, to ask, “Would you be willing to share with me, why you want to live?” It is in the ensuing moments that a space opens for a human heart to burst open. A young father in tears says, “I have the most beautiful children in the world. How could I ever hurt them so?” Another will admit “My parents love me so much. If I ended my life, a part of theirs too would end.” Or the person at the other end has already given so much of themselves that they are physically, financially and emotionally drained, and yet they say “I know I still have much to give to the world.” Sometimes a caller will burst into tears and simply exclaim “I don’t want to die!” In those sacred moments it is not only the caller’s heart in which a fissure appears…hearts at both ends of the conversation open to one another. My own tears remind me of my humanity…and gratitude for life.
As a trainer, I have had many volunteers listen as I share moments with humans in need. After one difficult, emotionally-draining call, a trainee said, “Roger, you have a gift.” It was a wonderful, kind and generous thing to say, but if she meant that I have some unique ability, I must demur. It is the essence of what it means to be human to simply sit with another in their moment of sorrow, pain and hurt, and simply listen. We all have that gift, even if some may have forgotten.
Often, after a particularly difficult call—a voyage from treacherous, stormy waters roiled by thoughts of death to a sea ever-so-slightly calmed by a renewed desire for life—a caller will express gratitude for our time together. I will sometimes, in return, tell my fellow voyager they were a gift in my life. It takes them by surprise, and many I fear, don’t believe me. But during our journey they may have reminded me of the life-affirming power of the love between parents and children…or the profundity of the human desire to cling to life…or the elegance and beauty of simple human connection. I am, during those moments, fully immersed in the vulnerable, raw and revealing human condition. It is not possible to take such a journey and return unblessed. The Universe has rearranged itself and I feel far more the recipient of gifts and grace than I am the giver.
Having reached these final words, please know that another gift has just been generously given. Thank you for the gift of sharing these few moments of your life, and perhaps allowing a small crevice to tear into your heart.