I have been working recently on a science fiction novel–the White Whale of my writing career–and it has been the catalyst for a lot of interesting thoughts. A few nights ago, Kylie and I were talking with some other friends about comedians and the way they, at least historically, have been able to say things in their jokes that are hard for people like politicians and pastors to get away with. True things. Comedy is perhaps the harsh and absurd truth.
Maybe there is a reason the truth is so hard to tackle head-on. It is as elusive as a prizefighter. And as complex as the cosmos. The truth is something like the brightness of the sun: look directly at it and it overwhelms you, propelling you to darkness. But look all around you and you can see what it does and how it illuminates.
I’ve long been a fan of the metaphor. A way of saying things without directly saying it. A short little parable (Lincoln was fond of answering questions with a quippy little story). The comedian’s joke. The story writer’s plot and characters. We love our books and movies because they are saying more than we can articulate. They are illuminating more than we can see. And there is something about resting in those metaphors that feels like home.
Now, here is the hard part. The metaphors are strange. In a way, they are unclear, open to interpretation. And, of course, they can be false. The metaphors of life are not immune to manipulation or fallibility.
But they do contain a magic within them. A magic that seems to transport us beyond ourselves. The truth of a metaphor like the Harry Potter books seems to penetrate and hit home more than a direct statement like, “good is better than evil”.
The difficult part of being human is living in this kind of a world. A world where truth is hard to wrap our hands around. A world where our stories ingratiate us the truth at least as effectively as the direct teachings of science or religion. In fact, all of the world’s religions center on story-telling and elements of the narrative style to communicate and color their worldviews.
So we live in a world of colliding stories. Competing narratives. Can’t we just get the truth directly? Pumped in through some sort of IV?
We try so hard to solve all of the world’s problems, beginning with our own. And we can’t ever seem to figure it out in any finalized sort of way. The end is elusive. The journey, it seems, at least for a time, is our destiny.
That is the real beauty of life. It is an odd, frustrating, complicated beauty. But it is the hope, joy, and suffering of the human experience. All intertwined together, braided and at times interchangeable. We live in these in-between places. In between our fear and knowledge, our ineptitude and responsibility, our trust and our control.
We live in a sort of in-between truth. The truth does not solve all of our problems, the way we think it should. The truth does not make us feel better, the way we think it should. And the truth does not fit into our tiny hearts and minds, the way we think it should. We can live in the truth but not master it. We can discover truth but not tame it. And this is the source of both awe and frustration.
Our world is increasingly fighting against this reality. We want the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and we want it now. Well, really, we want what we want to be the truth to be stapled into existence and every other complication annihilated. We want to eliminate nuance to make room for control. We want to eradicate complexity to make room for certainty. We can’t look directly at the sun, so we want to create our own version of it. One you can see and draw and vote for. An easy answer. An idol.
We are sentenced to life on this Earth. We get to choose if that is a punishment or a reward. We get to choose if the complexity of life is an obstacle to living or an invitation into it. We get to decide when we give up on seeking the truth, how we perceive it, and what we do with the little we understand.