It’s often said that there are two kinds of people in the world, although the labels for the two categories vary. There are people who want to move forward and people who want to cling to the past. There are people who respect history and people who want to destroy it. There are good people and bad people, however the speaker wants to define those comparisons.
I’m going to propose another comparison. In recent years there has been a growing push to get people (mostly privileged people) to recognize that their lived reality is different from that of other people (mostly underprivileged people). So my hypothesis is this: there are two kinds of people. One group recognizes that their lived reality – their personal experience, their own “truth,” if you will – is their own, and not the same as the lived realities as others OR the same as objective, universal, verifiable facts. The second group denies this, believing that their lived reality and their personal experience of truth is identical to Truth-with-a-capital-T. When this second group commits to this belief, they have no choice but to regard those who express a different experience and a different personal truth as crazy, liars, or enemies. Under pressure from this social movement to recognize the different realities of underprivileged people, those in the second group may put a different spin on it: if there is no single personal truth, then there is no single universal truth either. If people’s personal reality – which, to the second group, is identical to universal truth – can vary, then facts can vary, too.
In our society, personal reality has gained complete primacy. You see it in advertising, which has been working hard to turn wants into needs since at least the 1950s. You see it in the abandonment of major news sources watched by everyone in the U.S. in favor of social media feeds that easily enable you to shut out any voices that are different from your own. And you see it in the White House statement that functions as Trump’s concession speech:
“Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.” [emphasis mine]
Donald Trump is a person whose wealth and status have buffered him from having to face any reality other than his own for his entire life. I would argue that his most ardent – and armed – followers also fall into my hypothetical second category. But we all, as humans, have the tendency to veer from want to need, to see our own experience as Truth-with-a-capital-T and struggle to accept others.
The solution to this primacy of personal reality is not to throw out attempts at seeking universal truth, claiming that if everything is true then nothing matters. Nor is it to deny or attempt to extinguish people’s individual expressions of truth. All dilemmas are not zero-sum games. There are more than two choices. I am a Buddhist, and I’m going to phrase this in Buddhist terms: there is a middle way, between grasping and rejecting.
I do not say this in order to convert anyone to another religion, but there are Buddhist teachings about how the human mind works that apply to anyone with a human mind, and have also been confirmed by modern science and psychology. (People have, after all, called the Buddha the world’s first psychologist.) Here’s a relevant teaching: We encounter things in the world, and immediately sort those things into one of three categories – I like it, I don’t like it, or I don’t care. Then we start telling ourselves stories to explain and justify these emotions. (Modern brain science says it like this: data received by the senses travels to the amygdala – the emotion center – and the prefrontal cortex – where the analysis happens. The path to the amygdala is shorter, so we experience the emotion first, and that emotion can color the analysis.) We run into trouble when we start believing that the stories are true, identical to Truth-with-a-capital-T. We stop seeing external reality and thereby cause suffering for ourselves and others. So the Buddha – and many modern psychologists, in fact – suggest sitting with the mind, dropping the storylines, and just watching the emotions without grasping or rejecting them. This is meditation. In time we can recognize that the emotions come and go in response to things we encounter, but if we do not stoke them with a grasping storyline or put them in a pressure cooker by rejecting them, those emotions will pass on their own. Our lived realities can change.
We do not have to give up our experiences and emotions to acknowledge those of others. We do not need to deny our concerns about government, or about the security of our elections, or about whether incoming politicians really have our best interests at heart. And I am absolutely not demanding that anyone give up their beliefs and listen to me. I do not claim to speak the Truth-with-a-capital-T. There is an often quoted (and often paraphrased) saying of the Buddha, that we should not believe anything just because others have said it, even their most revered leaders and teachers, but only when we examine something in the context of our own lives and see what results it has should we believe it. And when people grasp so violently at the absolute truth of their own fears and anger, then we get armed protesters storming the Capitol Building.
We can sit, we can take a breath, and we can see how this works. We can release our grip on our fears and anger, work to recognize the reality that we all share, and move forward.
May all beings be of benefit.