In last week’s blog I mentioned fundamentalism, the tendency to pick up an absolute one-size-fits-all belief to ward off the anxiety of ambivalence and ambiguity. Of course it’s generally pretty easy to see the dangerous, narrow-minded fundamentalist in the other- the group or individual with whom we disagree.
So, what if we turned our attention, just for a moment, to our own inner fundamentalist? What if we asked ourselves, what do I take to be absolute in all situations? Where do I fail to ask open-ended questions? Where do I terrorize myself and/or others with the “right” way?
I’ve been a fundamentalist about truth-telling. Now, that might not sound like a bad thing, but stay with me. Because of certain patterns in my birth family I used my mind to attempt to meticulously keep track of “facts” to give me some sense of control in a situation where, as a child, I had very little control. This led to a lifetime of hyper-sensitivity to falsehoods and a seemingly admirable commitment to telling the truth.
Now what could be wrong with that? Telling the truth is good isn’t it? Well, here’s the thing: first of all, reasonable people, who have witnessed the same event and have no interest in distorting the facts, will tell very different stories about what happened. So, what’s the truth? This of course, gets hazier with the passage of time and/or any vested self-interest, not because we are terrible people but because we are fallible, and the way in which we create meaning and make sense of our lives includes selective remembering and shaping of events.
Once, when discussing a conflict I was having with a friend, I said to my son Brendan, (as if it was the trump card to end all discussion) “She lied!”
Brendan smiled and shrugged and said, “Yeah okay, she lied. Human beings lie.”
I’ve thought a lot about this since. He’s right of course. Human beings lie. They also tell the truth, love, laugh, cry, sleep, eat, make-love, plan etc. They lie because they are afraid, or they misremember, or they forget, or they go unconscious, or they see and experience things differently . . . .but wait a minute- that’s not really lying, is it?
So, here are some of the many problems with being a fundamentalist about truth-telling:
1) Facts do not necessarily reveal the truth. Sometimes the truth has to be seen beyond or despite the facts, and focusing on minute facts may make me miss the truth.
2) Individuals and groups see, remember, and emphasize different aspects of the truth, so it gets pretty tricky to determine any one “truth” in a particular situation.
3) Human beings lie. That means sometimes, I lie. And if I have absolutely no tolerance for lying, I will have to lie unconsciously, which makes it pretty hard to be honest with myself, let alone anyone else.
4) Like all fundamentalism, with the right combo of risk and threat, I can become a menace to others, brow-beating them into seeing the “truth” as I see it or, with a verbal agility that would put a court-room lawyer to shame, cornering the other in his or her “lie.”
5) I can similarly beat myself up internally for feelings that are not consistent with the factual “truth” my inner fundamentalist sees as so important.
What happens with any fundamentalism is that the principle that is being held takes precedent over human beings, over life itself. And our inner fundamentalist cannot keep us safe. Even if it was possible to know and tell some kind of mythical absolute truth 100% of the time, that would not keep me “safe.” Because of all the wonderful things life is, safe is not one of them, and at the root of any fundamentalism is anxiety- sometimes terror- about the wild and woolly risk of living fully, knowing that difficult things can and will happen.