Aphorisms, Truth Vs. Fact
I must confess I have a weakness for aphorisms. There’s something about the taut simplicity and economy of words that feels like enlightenment. And of course, that’s the point. A well-worded aphorism should feel that way. For refresher’s sake, an aphorism is:
“a concise statement of a truth, principle or sentiment.” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary)
In the interests of short-circuiting philosophical debates about what is epistemically knowable, I’m going to focus on the principle or sentiment aspect, rather than “fact.” Facts drag a lot of intellectual baggage around with it, especially today. I prefer to view aphorisms like Zen Koans. Aphorisms are not neither wisdom nor truth. They are signposts along the way. Work with me, here.
Fear or Hatred?
The last couple years there’s been a lot of angst richocheting around our country over our “direction,” the polarized divisiveness, intolerance, etc. And it has been argued that #MAGA and the “success” 45 is in part rooted in that angst. And it has been further hypothesized that the angst in which that success is grounded had its origins in the financial collapse of 2008 and/or the Obama presidency. As if racism, divisiveness or political hyperbole is new. But this is the United States, after all and historical perspective often gets lost in our quest for simple answers to complex questions, not to mention solutions implemented today and enjoyed tomorrow.
You will likely recall Mohandus Gandhi as the renowned, non-violent activist and the father of India’s independence from Britain, in the late 1940s. Gandhi based his opposition to British hegemony on non-violence and religious pluralism. Given India’s religious and cultural diversity, it isn’t difficult to understand why. The aphorism above is attributed to him.
It would be hard to miss its apparent relevance today. But if you’re also a student of history, you’re also painfully aware of how it turned out for Gandhi personally, and for what subsequently happened in India…not to mention how radically times have changed since.
All that aside, it still feels true, at some level. Does not intolerance, suspicion and uncertainty have some grounding in our fears? If so, does it follow then, that fear is the enemy or is there something else going on? At the risk of disagreeing with someone whose teachings, life and moral courage I admire, I think it’s a little more complicated.
Are we what we fear?
For the record, I am not contemptuous of fear, or people who feel it. As a retired Marine officer, big wave surfer and snow skier, I’ve learned a little about it and understand how debilitating it can be. Fear is often rational and justified. But while fear may be rational, it does not follow that our response to it will be.
My experiences suggest that fear, (Mr. Gandhi’s thoughts notwithstanding), is not the enemy. Misdirected fear, or harnessed to the wrong purpose, is. This distinction matters because it focuses on the response, rather than an emotion. Fear is as old as the caves, and natural as breathing. It’s often useful as well, insofar as it often galvanizes us to action. The problem arises when we allow it to replace reason.
Okay, so what and why now, particularly? Fair question. These are fearful times. Uncertainty can do that to us, if we let it. And we seem to be letting it do that a lot, of late. It tracks along behind us in our personal finances, unless you happen to be one of the exceptionally fortunate. It shrieks at us in the howling winds of hurricanes and typhoons and leers at us in the flames consuming hundreds of thousands of acres in a matter of days. It’s operant in our sense of bewilderment at an age riddled with change so sweeping it defies our ability to make sense of it or see a way through it. Small wonder nostalgia looks more attractive than trailblazing.
Courage and Hope.
But as fearful as the times may seem and as trite as hope sounds as a remedy, in the jaded 2nd decade of the 21st Century, we must nevertheless hope. Individually and collectively we are larger than what we fear and greater than our challenges. All that stands in the way of our success is are clear eyes, open minds and the conviction that we can craft a future in which the fulfillment of all is not merely possible, but in the best interests of us all.
Courageous men and women do not give in to their fears and they certainly don’t allow the fears to morph into hatred or tribalism. Both inevitably consume. Individually and collectively, courageous women and men connect and find inspiring beauty and wisdom in diversity and difference. We are one by choice. Not by color or by philosophy but by conscious choice and a devotion to the best in all of us. Today, look a brother or sister you don’t know in the eye…and see yourself.