My notebook has been quiet lately. I usually write down snippets of thought that I want to explore more fully in a post, but I haven’t written a thing down in weeks.
No, I haven’t answered the questions of life, the universe, and everything else, nor have I reached enlightenment. But I have stumbled across some ideas that have relieved my tired mind as the warmer weather rolls in.
(I only mention the weather because I find that being outside and getting my hands in the dirt seems to cure a lot of my ailments.)
Here’s some of the ideas that I’ve been exploring lately: I’ve written a fair bit about various frameworks and political ideologies that are designed to help make sense of the world, especially from a social justice and anti-oppressive position. Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to break out of the social media echo chamber and explore more critiques of ideas that I’ve believed to be true. Sometimes I’ve found this process very challenging, but overall it’s been helpful to gain a better understanding of the issues that I’m exploring and see the variety of perspectives that surround these topics.
In reading this critical analysis though, it often seems that conclusions are jumped to rather hastily: because there is a point of conflict, the whole system is flawed and should not be used regardless of the truths that still exist. And I mean, that’s fair – if there’s something wrong with a system that is causing harm, flaws needs to be critically analyzed and acknowledged. Ignoring such flaws can lead to further damage to be sure. But whole systems, whole ideologies, whole ways of thinking about the world aren’t necessarily wrong because of one flaw.
I was seeing this behaviour all over the political spectrum and it was eating away at me because it felt like I was continually walking in circles. I’d learn about some ideas that really helped me make sense of the world, only to have them criticized and explained away by more ideas that often seemed to be a result of misrepresentation or poor understanding. I was desperately grasping at straws, wanting to hold onto something solid that would allow me to see the real truth.
This was happening across a wide array of topics: decolonization, neoliberalism, green anarchy, sustainability and environmentalism, intersectionality, identity politics, anti-racism. All of these have bits and pieces where they can be misinterpreted and misused. But all of them hold important realizations and understandings about the world we live in.
Why can’t the world’s greatest thinkers come to an agreement about how things work? Why is there so much conflict and divisiveness? One would think that after centuries of exploring issues like social justice, economics, or human relations that we might be able to come to some sort of conclusion or even make progress in the same direction.
But, no such luck.
One Sunday afternoon, I was driving to pick up my son from his Dad’s house and playing some mental games with myself on the long drive around the nature of absolute truths. I was exploring what truths I might hold that could be true regardless of time and space, and realized that I could find none. There was no statement that I could say with certainty that would apply in all times and all spaces, across history and into the future, for all people throughout the universe. And if this was the case, that truth itself is relative.
And then it clicked.
If truth is relative, different people will inevitably hold different truths that are in conflict. There can never be one set of universal truths, no one clear path, no perfect framework or system, because all of us are coming to the table with a whole bunch of conflicting truths based on our varied existence in time and space. It’s all relative, right?
So when we approach conflict or try and solve problems, we can only do so with a nuanced approach where we try and understand all the relative truths that make up the fullness of the situation. We have to be flexible and understanding of each other, seeing the different ideas that we hold to be true based on our own lived experiences.
Beyond that, we need to recognize that the truths we hold may need to shift! This doesn’t mean we were wrong. It means that every experience we had up until that point directed us to an understanding that wasn’t complete (and may never be complete). And that’s okay. We can form new truths from new experiences. We can even hold conflicting truths together in our own selves to better understand why some problems just can’t be solved.
This realization has felt like it’s given me some freedom. I don’t always have to be right. I can criticize a piece of the puzzle without throwing away the entire ideology. I can reflect on my own lived experiences to get a better understanding of why I hold certain (relative) truths. I can comfortably adjust my beliefs when I get new information that I didn’t have before.
Most importantly, I’ve been able to be more empathetic: to close the widening gap and see different perspectives by exploring what beliefs others hold even when I don’t agree with them. AND I don’t feel embarrassed when I’m in discussion with someone and they have an idea that doesn’t jive with mine. As a non-conflict person, this is a pretty big step for me. As Meghan has taught me: it’s about multiplicity.
To be honest, the only thing that I’m feeling embarrassed about is how hard I held on to my set of truths and ideologies and frameworks as being “THE RIGHT WAY” without flexibility and how long it’s taken me to be able to lean into the idea of truths being relative. I’ve long wrestled with this concept, but only allowed it to take root recently. I know it won’t fix the world or solve any problems, but it does feel like it gives me breathing room at a time where divisiveness is growing like a weed and people are desperate for concrete answers that may not actually exist.