In the search for truth, the truth is: Truth is often hidden between black and white, somewhere in a gray shade.
Truth crept through my mind a couple weeks ago, during a visit to my mother in Illinois. Someone had given her a copy of George Washington: A Life, a highly-praised biography Ron Chernow published in 2010.
On the 779-mile drive back to the Red River Valley, I used Chernow’s book as a conduit to pondering on truth, since we all know El Presidente Numero Uno could not tell a lie. Right?
I think most of us born before the 21st century remember the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and how he owned up to the deed when confronted by Papa Washington.
“I can not tell a lie,” young Georgie reportedly said. “I chopped down the cherry tree.”
Our teachers and parents, even strangers on the street, would fall back on the George and the cherry tree story to illustrate the importance of telling the truth. Although, I’ve heard it said it was easier to tell the truth in Washington’s day, because there were no income tax forms to fill out.
I’ve also heard and read — including in Chernow’s book — the entire cherry tree incident is bogus. In fact, a preponderance of evidence indicates young Washington never chopped down a cherry tree and uttered the words “I can not tell a lie,” anymore then he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River when he was a young man. (Pssst! The Potomac’s over a mile wide, and there were no silver dollars in Washington’s lifetime.)
So, was the “truth” of our childhood really a lie? Probably so. Does that diminish the importance of the object lesson? Probably not.
Fact or fiction, the cherry tree story supports the theory that “truth” can be fluid. “Truth” is essential to the human experience — it’s just that “truth” often has to be distilled through gray tones of impression, interpretation and ambiguity.
In our justice system, witnesses must swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Still, almost every time a witness starts to testify and give the truth, some lawyer will object.
That’s because a court trial is a place you can see truth in action. Most witnesses do not come to court to lie, they merely present the “truth” from their own interpretation. That’s why two witnesses can testify about the same incident, but their testimony is diametrically opposed.
It’s up to lawyers, juries and judges to find where truth lies in the testimony presented.
There are times withholding the truth is necessary in maintaining friendships. If a female friend asks for your opinion of a new hairdo, sometimes it’s better to withhold the truth than to answer honestly.
Truth is often violated by silence, but it can be equally outraged by silence. So, most of us will say, “Your hair looks great,” even if the truth is her hair looks like a bramble bush.
There are times when the truth hurts, especially when you step on a scale or catch a glimpse of your face in the mirror in the morning.
I remember getting together with a group of friends who shared coffee breaks. It was a round table of wisdom, at which most of the problems of the town, county, state, country and universe were solved.
There was one fellow who would begin lecturing ... er, informing us of his opinion, and when he got wound up, eventually he’d repeatedly utter the phrase, “Trust me, I’m going to tell you the truth.”
It made me wonder what he’d been telling us five minutes before.
Anyway, determining truth is a life-time search; a winding journey that, hopefully, ends in honesty.
As you continue the search, here are a few adages that may help you recognize truth when it slaps you in the face:
n Truth needs no crutches — if it limps, it’s a lie.
n To hear truth and not accept it does not nullify it.
n The truth is one thing for which there are no known substitutes.
n Listen to those who seek the truth; be wary of those who try to convince you they’ve found it.
n Some people have a reverence for the truth. They always keep a respectable distance from it.
n Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.
And that’s the truth.
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