Finding truth in a changing world by Jim Paredes

Posted on November 16, 2008

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We grow up believing that certain truths are etched in stone and are therefore eternal and unchanging. A lot of what is supposed to be eternal has to do with beliefs and morals that are supposed to affect and guide the way we think and conduct ourselves. There are also cultural customs and practices that have been introduced to us in a more subliminal manner but affect us equally and we express them as attitudes — biases, if you will — that we harbor about people, social mores, and even life itself. They pretty much constitute our core moral compass.

And these beliefs that anchor us, that keep us grounded, are, not surprisingly, almost always under assault by time and by the times. Consider the medieval dogma which proclaimed that the world is flat. It took a quantum leap for the Church to come around and bring its thinking up to speed on the reality that the world is, um, round.

More currently, consider the events in the past few months when Wall Street, the bastion of material wealth and, to many, the only real wealth on earth that is worth anything, collapsed with no visible or probable rescue in sight. This is a direct assault on the economic doctrine of capitalism as we know it. The bottom has given way and no one knows when the free fall will end. Meanwhile, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty itself. Everyone is anxiously waiting for the “thud” to happen when we hit rock bottom for some semblance of certainty.

Or consider the mind-blowing reality that the new president of the US is an African-American. Who would have thought this could happen, even just two years ago?

In these times when things are changing so fast, it’s hard to distinguish what will remain eternally true and which “truths” will be unmasked and exposed as having reached their expiration date. Centuries ago, the pace of change was so slow that people looked to the past to determine their course of action in the present and future.

It was easy to feel certain about one’s beliefs and traditions. One became a farmer because one’s father, grandfather and great grandfather were farmers. Very little, if at all, changed from generation to generation. That was just how things were.

These days, people choose careers and lifestyles independently of how their parents lived theirs. They may even change careers a number of times in their lifetime. That’s just how the world is today. Things have changed and will continue to do so at an even faster rate.

I have caught myself many times blindly following truths and assumptions, taking for granted that they will always be true, only to end up walking into a solid wall. How is it that, all of a sudden, what used to be is not so anymore? I swear there wasn’t a wall there before I bumped into it. I guess I should expect this to happen many more times.

When I was young, the world seemed so much more innocent, so unlike what we have now. There were no pedophile priests (at least we never heard about them), sins were divided into mortal and venial, and to die without confessing a grievous sin assured one of eternal damnation. Life was simple and defined. There was an absoluteness, and therefore a certainty, about how one should conduct one’s self.

There are many who decry the perceived loss of morals today and blame it for the mess and instability in the world. They condemn the “situational ethics” which has replaced simplistic black-and-white thinking. In their conservative view, where there are no North stars to follow, people will go astray! And they are right. We need to be grounded and guided by so-called unchanging values. The problem is in determining which values these are in a rapidly changing world which we often have to navigate without a rear-view mirror.

On the other hand, the intellectual Alfred North Whitehead said, “There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.” He seems to be hitting the penchant for dogmatism and rigidity that leaves no room for adjustment, rethinking, reframing or even dropping beliefs in the face of newly emerged facts.

I remember the pathetic woman who, in one of John McCain’s campaign sorties, expressed her belief that Obama is an Arab. This, despite the fact that Obama has repeatedly declared that he has been going to a Christian church for 30 years. It was sad and tragic to see such ignorance displayed by someone who, even in the face of the truth, was unable or unwilling to accept a reality beyond what she insists she “knows.”

I also cannot fathom how otherwise rational people can become totally closed and intractable when certain topics arise. I refer to the issue of reproductive health and family planning. I have heard the arguments of those who stand against a woman’s right to reproductive health and I respect them even if I do not agree with them.

I cannot, however, go along with those who promote unlikely scare scenarios to back their side. For example, I was shocked years ago when leaders of the Church actually suggested that then Health Secretary Juan Flavier, a decent public servant and promoter of family planning, was an “abortionist.” Lately, I have heard people condemn the reproductive health bill now pending in Congress as part of a plot by the Western world to slow down the population growth of non-whites in the world because whites find people of colora threat to their primacy.

Beliefs can be positive or negative, and one way to know is to check whether they move forward our perception and understanding of an ever-expanding world. This is easier said than done. Habits of thought persist and even if logic may expose doctrines that have stopped being credible and helpful, our sentimental links to them may be difficult to relinquish.

I resonate with the tenet of non-attachment in all things, and that includes beliefs. We must learn to let go of them when it is time to do so. It is not easy, but if we want to create space for the new, we must learn to set aside those things that have stopped working.

I would like to share a Zen story about the temptation people encounter when seeking the truth.

“One day Mara, the Evil One, was traveling through the villages of India with his attendants. They saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up in wonder. The man had just discovered something on the ground in front of him. Mara’s attendant asked what that was and Mara replied, ‘A piece of truth.’

“‘Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a piece of truth, O Evil One?’ his attendant asked. ‘No,’ Mara replied. ‘Right after this, they usually make a belief out of it.’”

It is good to be reminded that reality is what remains after our beliefs reach their expiration date.

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Posted in: Society