The truth won't set you free

Beyond the realms of reason

My mind does some odd things, just like everyone else’s, but not in the same way, because I’m special, just like everyone else is.

One of these quirks is the propensity to relay high-definition snippets of my childhood in response to events taking place in my theoretically adult life. Like a vivid dream that leaves us off centre, these graphic recreations of the past usually have me in a daze for a few seconds. I have tried to suppress these flashbacks and, as you may have guessed already, my attempts just created new flashbacks of me failing at containing the old ones. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve shifted focus to an achievable tactic – identifying the trigger, but it hasn’t always worked.Invoking this method in public creates a bemusing spectacle like the one you’re about to read.

I was in class at the university where I teach a public relations course. Halfway through discussing the creation of corporate narratives, a student raised her hand.2

“Sir”

“Yes” (reeling from the forced respect that was as unsettling as it was unforeseen)

“What about the truth?”

Now, on the surface, I thought this was a relatively innocuous question. We’d run through a few ethical frameworks, discuss modern perspectives on capitalism, and then erode said student’s self-righteousness to a level conducive to fleshing out a compliant and comfortable corporate career. My mind’s reaction was anything but that coherent.

“Yeh toh patang hai.”3

I lose my train of thought at the best of times but have honed my speaking to a point where I can pause to find my bearings. There are occasions, however, when the distractions within are louder than the actual conversation I’m having.

“Yeh toh patang hai!”

At this stage, I’m considering the onset of full-blown delirium. For as long as I can remember, I have never thought in Hindi nor have I worked on developing my kite-flying talent.4

I defaulted to my new adult mind management technique. “Let’s dig deeper and find that trigger.” The murmuring now has an accompanying visual. A boy, no more than 5-6 years old. He is sitting on a compound wall just outside a little house. It was in the suburbs, this house was, one of several identical constructions lined up like buns in an industrial kitchen. Opposite this row of breadboxes was a field flanked by high walls with broken shards of glass jammed into the concrete to ‘process’ trespassers. Rural India takes no prisoners.

Back to the boy. He’s perched on this wall tugging a thread that is attached to what seems to be a plastic bag. Oblivious to the scorching heat, his glee is evident as he sees the plastic bag tied by its handles fill up with hot air and soar as far as the thread would allow it. If imagination had a soul, then you’d see it in those eyeballs, at least until a passing neighbour decided to ‘fix’ the situation. In my view, there are two kinds of triggers behind the need to needle – not being happy about seeing ourselves unhappy and not being happy about seeing others happy. Both create the need to muck around. The decision to break this chid’s idyllic trance was upon us.

In a high pitched voice that matched the loudness of her attire, she chose to trust her instinct.

“Beta, theli ke saath kya kar rahe ho?”5

The boy looks at her. A rude awakening is unpleasant, more so when you’re sitting on a wall lost in thought, and even more so when your imagination is playing an active role in fueling this experience. For a moment his eyes widened, wondering if he was found out, caught in the act. She knew his secret. Surely he didn’t invent this pastime based on a real amateur sport, one that was extremely popular in this part of the country. It wasn’t because he couldn’t make friends, at least not as quickly as he could make them up. But, if all of this was true (it wasn’t, was it?), who cares? He was having fun. So, his brow furrowed and the widened innocent eyes narrowed like he knew something she didn’t.

“Yeh toh patang hai.”

The neighbour’s reaction began with bewilderment (either from acknowledging the subjectiveness of her reality or at the little boy’s apparent delusion) before moving to a smirk of condescension. Wee man wasn’t impressed.

Fueled by this historical moment of indignance, and quite frankly shocking indifference to a child’s pleasant daydream, my present-day self’s mouth motor began to chug.

“If you claim to tell the truth, you claim to know the truth. That assumption of knowledge means that you will at some point believe that your truth holds more water than someone else’s. Soon, an air of superiority will start to develop alongside the need to further the consumption of this ‘objective truth’. The fact of the matter is that bits of truth lie beneath and between the lines of nuance. It is nigh on impossible to assess at any point in time what an absolute truth looks like, much less devise ways to adhere to its all-encompassing construct. Honesty to the best of our ability given the context is the most we can push for, assuming that we ascribe an elevated status to this quality. Belief in absolute truth is and has been the foundation of the greatest atrocities we’ve known as a species. A fiery commitment to this truth is bigotry fuel and not liberation fodder. Let’s focus on honing our craft and rely on situational value-based judgments to offer balance.”

“Right.”

“I hope that made sense. Did I answer your question?”

“Okay.”

“Excellent. Good chat.”

Overreaction aside, I was relieved that the monologue was now complete. I acknowledge that the denial of the absolute truth is a circular argument, but prefer the forced subjectivity over the self-righteous perception of objectivity.

In my experience, having a set of values to abide by offers a far more efficient calibration of decisionmaking than any commitment to the ‘truth’. Life is neutral in its meaning, and any that we perceive is devised by our (over)developed brains through a combination of stimulus, memory, and conditioning. Buying into one specific truth or the notion of absolute transparency requires a level of knowledge that is perpetually aspirational.

Our universe is chaos, and every consciousness is finding ways to slice and dice this melange of stimuli, conviction, history, narrative, purpose, and vulnerability. Slice away all you will, please, but don’t let your aggressive hack interfere with my criss-cross cut. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to find the truth.

The child attempts to whistle a tune before realising that whistling is not his thing.

“This ‘kite’ business is fun.”

Image courtesy: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

1.  Just because something has never worked doesn’t mean that it never will. Ask religion.

2. “It’s hand?” I’m not sure how gender-neutral writing works.

3. “But, this is a kite.” (in Hindi)

4. I don’t work on things that I might not do well. If you just thought ‘then why do you write?’, I hope your feet find the banana peel that begins your descent on the staircase to hell.

5. “Son, what are you doing with a bag?”