Maybe We Can't Handle The Truth?

Toby Hazlewood

Why do we ignore or deny what's uncomfortable?

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Even before daily life was dominated by the global pandemic and economic meltdown, I’d begun to recognise life for what it is — a process of ever-cycling order and chaos in all things. As one aspect of my life settled into calm and routine, another would shift into a state of flux. It felt unsettling until I realised and accepted that-that’s how it seems to work.

This continuous process of change is ever present in life — even the most stable and healthy jobs and relationships go through alternating phases of good times and bad.

The financial markets experience booms and then busts.

We get sick, then we recover and feel healthy again until the next ailment or injury strikes.

We enjoy good times because we have the frequent, inevitable lows to compare them against.

These cycles of change help us to grow and adapt as humans. We can accept them as inevitable or we can fight and resist, holding out for calm. Life carries on regardless.

At least in the dark times we can be fairly certain there will be brighter times ahead at some point. As the occasionally controversial psychologist and speaker Jordan B. Peterson puts it:

“Chaos and order are fundamental elements because every lived situation (even every conceivable lived situation) is made up of both. No matter where we are, there are some things we can identify, make use of, and predict, and some things we neither know nor understand. No matter who we are … some things are under our control, and some things are not.”

This framework has helped me to make sense of the world. The philosophy of Stoicism is the accompanying toolkit whose core principles have helped me adapt and thrive in spite of the inherent chaos of living.

I’m not immune to the innate turbulence that defined 2020 and which continues into 2021. But, I do feel better prepared than I might have been compared to the person I was a few years ago since I adopted this outlook.

Stoicism has been a big part of that and I'm not alone in seeing its worth. This article from 2020 illustrates the ways in which the philosophies of Marcus Aurelius can be applied to the times of COVID-19.

It has helped me to understand two of the key truths of life:

  1. Life is inherently uncertain, random and chaotic:
  2. I cannot control what happens, only how I react to it.

I used to think life would make sense if I could absorb and analyse more information — through relentlessly seeking answers I’d eventually discover the truth. I’ve since realised that more information, even that which cannot be disputed and is factually correct, doesn’t necessarily make life easier to understand or deal with.

Seeking the truth

The virtues of patience and tolerance are essential for getting through daily life — they were always important but in 2021 they are vital. These come more easily to some than to others.

For everyone who’s resigned to waiting and seeing how things will play out, there are another ten who desperately crave answers and want for certainty.

  • They want to know when lockdown will be released - while some states are now releasing these, most now feel like the end of restrictions is in sight.
  • They want to know what will happen when the latest bailouts and subsidies run out - the recent payment of the next round of stimulus checks has offered reassurance to many.
  • They want to understand when they’ll see their families, be able to go to work, the cinema or their local bar or restaurant again - with the opening up of many businesses, opportunities are gradually being granted.

Citizens want to have the answers from their government to these and many other questions. Their questions arise from a desire for certainty and order - from a desire to know the truth.

By my estimation, nobody on earth really knows the full extent of how this will all play out, but there’s another factor behind why governments remain tight-lipped in sharing details:

"We can’t handle the truth."

I don’t just mean in relation to the questions arising out of the pandemic, but in normal daily life too.
Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash

We don’t always like or accept the truth

We often do better if we don’t know the truth, especially if it doesn’t correspond with what we want to hear or believe.

  • We don’t want to admit that we don’t exercise enough and eat too much of the wrong kinds of food. We’d rather blame our excess weight and ailing fitness on a genetic defect or circumstantial factors than admit fault.
  • We blame our faltering career on our boss favouring our co-workers over us, rather than blaming our questionable work ethic.
  • It’s too difficult to master the guitar, train for a marathon or write a book. We’d rather believe that such things are the preserve of the naturally gifted or those with support or opportunities that we lack. While it doesn't make us feel good, there is even a suggestion that there's no such thing as gifted children!
  • We don’t accept logical, scientific or practical explanations for events happening around the world daily. We’d rather blame scapegoats or concoct conspiracy theories that suit our agenda or ideology.

When we don’t like the truth we’re happy creating new truths that serve us better.

We selectively interpret the truth

There’s little about a stay-at-home order that could be open for interpretation. Yet many seem intent on concocting alternate interpretations to justify flouting the rules and limiting the effectiveness of the measures (see Florida beaches during Spring Break for a recent example).

If any government were to share details of future changes to controlling measures, some sectors of the population would misinterpret those as reason to change behaviours immediately.

Some might do so out of malice, others out of misunderstanding — the effect would be the same regardless.

If it were suggested that in 2-weeks we could start to visit with relatives again, someone would interpret that as an instruction that they can start to do so immediately or reason that if it’s going to be okay in 2–weeks, why not now?

It’s simplest if there’s only one set of rules to follow and one version of the truth shared. Even then we can’t expect 100% compliance — this helps explain why there’s no appetite for sharing more of the truth than is necessary.

We believe what we want to believe, truth or not

I don’t believe life will ever return to a state of normality measured by what we were used to before Covid-19. We should accept that this is the new normal — but that’s just my view.

When lockdown is released or slackened, I won’t be rushing out to associate with more people than I have to, even if I’m told I can. I have no desire to rush to the shopping mall the minute it opens, just so I can buy more stuff I don’t need and potentially pick up the virus in the process.

My actions are shaped by my truth and by what’s most important to me — protecting my health and that of my friends, loved-ones and my community as a whole.

The truth in terms of what is technically, scientifically, philosophically and morally right is only part of the picture. The rest is down to my own way of thinking.

The truth and the facts are only one part of the puzzle. We believe what suits us and reject what doesn’t.

The truth isn’t always easy to believe or comfortable to accept

We often reject the truth even if we know deep down that it’s irrefutable.

  • I don’t want to contemplate the worst if anyone I love should catch the virus.
  • I don’t want to accept the tenuous nature of my employment — as rock solid as my job seems right now, something could change and my income could evaporate overnight.
  • At the end of a painful workout I don’t want to think about having to keep doing the same again many times if I want to protect the gains I’ve made.

The truth can hurt. The truth often represents the hardest path. The truth is often the opposite of what we want or hope for.

We all exist with truths that are uncomfortable and unsettling. We ignore the bits we dislike and begrudgingly accept those that we have to.

We concoct our own truths if it serves us to do so

I’m as guilty as any of coming up with my own explanations for things, even if I know I’m lying to myself deep down. I’ll delay phoning a friend and convince myself they’re probably busy and don’t want to be disturbed. I’ll quit on a set of exercises, pretending that I’m respecting my body and avoiding injury. The housework can wait another day — I’d be disturbing the kids if I got the vacuum cleaner out right now.

Whether we concoct our own truths to pacify feelings of guilt over letting personal standards slip, or we convince ourselves that our circumstances justify breaking the stay-at-home order, the same applies.

We create our own truths that suit our own purpose.

You want answers? You want the truth?

When the press calls for the government to share its plans for ending lockdown or the public bemoan the lack of transparency, it comes from a place of good intent. When we're facing adversity and uncertainty we think that more information will give us reassurances and comfort.

Can we really handle the truth though? Will it help us feel better or just complicate matters? Is more information really the issue here? Is greater insight really going to bring more comfort and certainty?

More information might prompt more speculation, hypothesising and anxiety which would in turn promote even more discomfort and chaos?

In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson, playing irascible Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup in the movie A Few Good Men:

“You can’t handle the truth.”

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