Sunday, April 10, 2011

My Feelings for Truth

Truth is power. It provides answers to the questions 'how?' and 'why?'. When we realize it, it touches us, moves us and shocks us. When it can't be found, we become confused and rudderless. When it is abused, it conveys power to deceivers at greater cost to the deceived. When it is shared, it is the basis of trust. The truth requires courage, humility and clarity. It needs no argument. It needs no defense. It needs no impassioned plea to convince or cajole. It simply is. 

It disheartens me to observe that argument seems to stand as the sole arbiter of truth. Win arguments and your truth will carry the day. Argument is fraught with charismatic charlatans who score points, argue, insult, humor, joke and say almost anything to convince you of their point of view. I'm harsh in my judgment of these people. Their souls are stained. I hold the truth sacred and like any true believer, I can be an asshole about it sometimes. 

A couple of years ago, I found myself strolling along third-street promenade in Santa Monica on a Friday night. I saw some people had set up a microphone and were arguing with passer-bys about Intelligent Design. Now, this idea stems from an incident in 1802, when William Daley found a watch in the street. He suddenly realized that there must be a watchmaker. Such a thing could not possibly have appeared there randomly through natural processes. By extension, the same argument should hold for the human eye, or other wonders of nature. Hence, it follows naturally that an ‘intelligent designer’ created us and that the whole notion of Darwinian evolution is unfounded. Nowadays, over two hundred years later, this logic has no scientific credibility, but advocates of this idea argue the point anyway. They have a religious agenda, not a scientific one. They present pseudoscience and proselytize.

I squared my shoulders and cricked my neck in preparation for a fight. I wanted to take these guys on. I needed to. A teenage kid was at the mike trying his best and I stood just behind him and started muttering encouragements: "Good point!"; "You're doing great!". I had a thought. "Ask them about snowflakes! Go on, ask them about snowflakes." After all, each individual snowflake is completely unique, beautiful and complex. We know that their fractal patterning arises from the geometry of water molecules, not from a 'designer'. Our opponent didn't understand the point I was trying to make. He just looked there and looked at me with a mixture of confusion and incredulity on his face. 

After a while, I realized it really didn’t matter what we said, they weren't really interested the argument, they were only interested in winning the argument, no matter what. Tellingly, I noticed a camera they’d set up to record the conversation and I suddenly realized that they'd study the footage and just work to find counterarguments to the things being said. By getting in their face like this, I was actually helping them.

They didn't care about the truth at all. They were bullshitters; worse even than liars, since liars care enough about the truth to try to subvert it. The determining thing was their underlying intent. In this case, this was fairly innocuous: spend a Friday night spreading the good word amongst the heathen, then go off to Denny's for pancakes. 

Things are not so harmless in the wider world. In his book 'Bad Science', Ben Goldacre takes on a whole host of bullshit artists: T.V. dietitians with mail-order doctorates, newspaper columnists stoking false health-scares, miracle cures for incurable diseases; all with an intent based on credibility and cash. These people have the resources to litigate their cause endlessly. They have public relations savvy to drive their perspective relentlessly. They are masters of propaganda, of argument, of finding the public pulse and pressing it just hard enough to sell their wares. Put simply, in the world of argument, they will always win.

During the horrors of the Japanese 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdown, the right-wing pundit, Ann Coulter, was on TV espousing possible benefits of radiation for the people of Japan with a few wisecracks about sunbathing. It was in monumental poor taste, minimizing the ordeal of a whole nation for her own publicity. But she did it with enough stage presence to make it sound plausible to the right-wing faithful. She presented anecdotal evidence; she looked good on camera; she made her statements with certainty. It was patently designed to increase her notoriety as an incendiary firebrand and ultimately just to sell more books. 

A friend of mine posted on Facebook "Call me old fashioned, but I think this is wrong". I posted back "You're not old fashioned; you just have a soul". For want of a better word, isn't it just that? Intentions, actions and commitment constitute the raw material and quality of a soul. Bullshitters who to mix cruelty with their lies have the most putrid spirits of all. 

Everyone inhabits the world with a personal understanding of its laws. Our individual 'truths' are subjective and somehow equally valid. A scientific, objective view of the world answers the question 'how?' and gives us atoms and electrons, galaxies, cars, and mechanisms

These are, however, utterly devoid of meaning, which arises from our subjective, personal 'truths' as an answer to the question 'why?'. When I declare 'I love you', just you try to convince me otherwise. 

There are many contradicting, equally valid, subjective truths. The way these subjective truths map to the known mechanisms of the scientific universe determine how we predict the future and shape it to our will. The degree that our subjective truths resonate in the souls of our fellows is how we touch, move and inspire each other. 

I've had mystical experiences that defy explanation. A few years ago, I was in love with a Catholic woman and was taking some initiation classes to look at joining the church, despite being an atheist. These once-a-week evening classes allowed me to pepper our priestly teachers with questions. I found that it became more about deeper attitudes and relationships rather than finding a logical definition for God. I was taking time to pray, which just consisted of me sitting quietly by myself, asking questions and contemplating answers. 

One night, I was working out, warming up on an elliptical trainer in an empty L.A. gym at about 9pm. I suddenly had an uncanny feeling of Jesus (yes, that Jesus) running in the air besides me. It was a strange, miraculous feeling of being watched over and cared for specifically by him and it was wonderful. It was very moving. 

Was it objectively real? No. I'm sure that the air never shimmered with light to reveal Jesus Christ in a pair of running shorts keeping me company in a way that was measurable to an outsider. But who cares? That's not the point. The point is the underlying subjective relationship. A Christian who talks to God every day really does talk to God in their mind. Even though my scientific self happily declares this to be objectively impossible. This leads to contradiction, and an imperfect logic that I relish. There is a God. There is no God. 

The 'how' and the 'why' are different things and there's no need to mix them up. The meaning in life is lodged in the 'why', in our intentions, our actions and our commitments. A life lived in bullshit carries little meaning in its brief passing and even less in its legacy. A life lived in truth carries love and real power forward into the future for its heirs.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


'Tink'. The soft sound of metal on metal. Two blades meeting for the first time in a quiet engagement. The prelude to a bout. As a nickname, it fitted her perfectly. A slim blond actress with martial grace. Think of Naomi Watts with a sword in her hand.

I was taking a stage combat class for fun. Of course, within the grand sweeping continuum of unfulfilled-hopes-and-dreams-that-is-Hollywood, this was serious stagecraft for some people. After 19 years of training in competitive fencing, this was nothing like that for me. Surprisingly though, it revealed some unexplored worlds that I had no idea about: sexiness, charisma, style.

I walked into class one day and there she was. Distinctively beautiful, poised and altogether as non-demure and fully in-your-face as any fencer could be. That night, we worked on a scene where she was the hero and we were the bad guys. She got to kick our asses. She looked damn good doing it and she made no secret of how much she reveled in her own power. Almost immediately, irrevocably, I fell in love with her.

I had nothing of her sense of danger, nothing of her need to test boundaries. We went out on only one occasion that could have been misconstrued as romantic. If there was ever a possibility of a mutual tryst, it flared briefly that night and fizzled.

I remember her saying "I could invite you up but I have to get an early night" and as gentlemen like myself have always done, I respected her wishes without the faintest idea of what might really be going on. I professed my interest, asked her out, heard that she was seeing someone else and realized that it was hopeless. I either refused or found myself incapable of giving up, continuing to reach for the unimaginable goal of being with her. The romanticism, suffering, and fantasy fed on deep hidden things. I hated it. I loved it. It caught me up in its clutches and it sure as hell wasn't letting me go.

It was a little disconcerting how she easily accepted my feelings. Who knows? Perhaps she enjoyed the attention. Perhaps she was oblivious. This was untamed and driven psychology. It fed a dark shard of thought that resonated darkly within me, slyly muttering "Why would she want you? Why would anyone want you?"

One time as friends, we were going to a comedy show and I, the man, drove. I picked her up looking forward to spending a nice evening with her. I remember vividly the moment when my car simply conked out at a traffic light near the venue. I felt a flash of panic. I sat, hands frozen on the wheel, breathless and frankly aghast. She calmly reached across me, hit the hazard lights on the dashboard and started to look around for a place to stash the car. She was unbelievably gracious all evening and I was mortified. As I said goodnight, I put her into a taxi and tried to preserve some vestige of bravado. The cause of the breakdown was that I had forgotten to fill up the car and had run out of gas.

Amid all this humiliation, unfulfilled desire and self-loathing, there was a moment, utterly vivid and astonishing clarity. I remember one day I was fighting through tears and feeling quite utterly miserable over her. A quiet soft voice welled up in me and said, quite clearly, "Its OK for you to feel this way. You love her and she doesn't love you back".

It was simply the act of giving permission to be, pronounced internally with a gentleness that makes me soften even now. I remember how the tears retreated, how the clenching knot in my belly untied and how my whole body unwound. It was a moment I will remember forever.

We're still friends, Tink and I. She's still with the same guy, still a free spirit, still beautiful. I now know, that like Cyrano with Roxane, some element of my own self-loathing had needed an external beauty to help in the search redemption. The moment I let all that go was an inflection point of the highest magnitude. It was the moment when my compassion for myself finally outweighed my sense of everything I lacked. In some sense it was the moment the blades came apart, separated and were put back in their scabbards.