We’re told that truth is relative. Fundamentally, it is. There are no absolute truths. There are only truths higher than those which you hold now.
Is There One Side to the Story, or Many?
Humans used to have it in their heads, for instance, that smoking tobacco is healthy. Now you’d hardly find a soul who believes that. The idea that smoking tobacco is unhealthy is perhaps one of the most universally agreed upon truths. This is a truth that humanity has moved towards collectively.
On matters of nutrition, we are far more split. Disagreement runs abound. Some say that meat is a necessary source of dietary iron, and dairy is of calcium. Others regard these things not only as unnecessary but actually detrimental to health—that all of our nutritional needs can be met by eating plants.
This is a subject where there appears to be two sides to the story. Perhaps each side holds pieces to the puzzle, but neither has the whole puzzle.
But is this really so? What if one day humanity becomes as firm on its views about nutrition as it is on its views about smoking? What if decades from now the idea that eating animal products is healthy is regarded as equally as ludicrous as the idea that smoking cigarettes is healthy?
Rarely is it considered that there are two sides to the story of smoking. I’d be surprised to find anyone who truly believes that smoking provides them with health benefits. They might try to tell themselves that it’s not hurting them much, but I doubt you’ll find someone who upholds smoking on the same level of health as eating apples and spinach.
At one time I lived in a reality where it was assumed that animal products were necessary to good health. It was hard to consider not eating them as less than ideal. I did largely avoid them, at different periods of time, because I knew they contained substances (e.g. salt, artificial preservatives, antibiotics) that ultimately made the foods more harmful than beneficial. But I wasn’t content to merely eschew animal products. While I was side-stepping a lot of health hazards, I was also missing out on some good stuff.
Eventually I removed myself from that paradigm entirely. The idea that I need to consume the stuff of other animals to be at my best is now laughable. Somehow, my blood tests always come back fine. I don’t have to make an effort at all to get enough iron, calcium, or protein in my diet—or anything else, for that matter. While there have been and still are kinks to work out in my diet, overall I feel the best I ever have eating the way that I do now. The days when I consumed animal products just can’t compare.
(to be specific, at this time about 95% of my diet is raw fruits and vegetables, and the other 5% is beans and some occasional cooked onions and garlic).
In my eyes, I’m doing just about the best I can. I’m not completely satisfied with my diet but it works, and I’m continuously thinking about what I might try and do differently (which includes thinking very little about it all, and just eating what feels right to me and when).
There likely are other people, however, who view my current state very differently. Some people might think that I am slowly dying of deficiencies of iron, calcium, and protein. They probably attribute every one of my apparent flaws to my diet. Maybe if I’m feeling a bit sad or tired they’ll say, “Oh, it must be all that protein she’s not eating. Poor kid.” When they see me run 20+ miles at one time they probably imagine my bones decaying underneath me. They think, “Wait until she’s 40. She’ll have to have every surgery going.”
Is There a Middle Ground?
Then there are people who are dumbfounded about the whole thing. They see all sorts of different situations playing out and hear an assortment of convincing ideas, but they don’t know what’s true. They aren’t prepared to pick a side, because both seem somewhat-valid, so they try to stay “moderate” and in the middle, perhaps incorporating elements of each.
But can you not pick a side? What is “moderate,” anyway? Would you like to smoke cigarettes in moderation—say, to the tune of one per week? While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s many more cigarettes than I’m smoking now, which is zero.
Let’s assume that you don’t smoke at all, at this point in your life. What if you began to smoke one cigarette per week? Would you try to write off that behavior as not too unhealthy?
From the standpoint that smoking is completely unhealthy, such a statement sounds like denial—does it not? If you’ve never smoked before, you would have some difficulty with justifying smoking—yes? Even if it’s a moderate amount?
Would you really like to smoke in moderation? How about x-rays—would you like those in moderation, too? Why don’t I hit you with a spoon for five minutes a week, while we’re at it? It’s only a moderate level of violence, you know.
Additionally, when it comes to cigarettes, you never hear someone say, “We’re all different, you know. For some of us, cigarettes are no good. For others, half a pack a day is fine. And for still others, they can smoke all day long and get along just great.” Yet, when it comes to diet, people say this sort of thing all the time. What’s healthiest for me is completely the opposite for you, we say.
That being said, people do point to others who have smoked for most of their lives and made it well into their 60s, 70s, 80s, or even beyond. They ask, “How didn’t that person get lung cancer?” But at the end of the day, it’s quite obvious to us all that people who smoke are not as healthy as they can be—even if they make it through this life cancer-free.
It’s interesting how we point to death as the end-all, be-all of bad things. As though the length of life is exponentially more important than the quality.
When I was 15 I was a mental-emotional trainwreck, and I regularly physically harmed myself. I was just waiting for the day when I would either lose my mind completely and have to be institutionalized, or incidentally hurt myself so badly that I would end up permanently injured or dead.
Eventually, I realized that this was a pipe dream. The explosion-scenario I was waiting for was never going to happen. I was never going to die. No, the reality was even worse: things would stay the same indefinitely. I would remain in this half-alive, miserable state.
The end result was up to me. As long as I chose to maintain the status quo, it would be a long, long time before life “naturally” ended things. At least, it would have felt that way.
In the end, the situation turned around in a more patient, calmer manner. There was no explosion or breaking point to speak of. I slowly fell more and more out of line with my destructive habits until I consciously decided that I was done. Even then I still hurt myself a few more times, but by then it was clear that I didn’t need this behavior to make it through my days.
When I was immersed in the behavior, it certainly appeared to me that I needed it. Yet, no one agreed with me. People correctly thought that I was self-destructive and insane. My thought was somewhere along the lines of, I don’t want to need this, but right now I do. Sounds sorta moderate, eh? Right?
You know the answer. There were no “two sides” to this story. There was only one. It was just a matter of time until I agreed with everyone else that my behavior was not serving me. I was wrong, the majority was right, and that was that.
Of course, I didn’t come to the final conclusion by having the view of the third party imposed upon me. I had to come to that viewpoint by way of my own will. Otherwise, it wasn’t really my viewpoint. Whatever my view was at any time, that was the only view I could have. That was the truth.
That is, until it wasn’t anymore.
Old vs. New Paradigms
At bottom this isn’t really an article about eating or smoking or self-harm or anything of that sort (though everything I have written above is genuine). This really is an exploration of truth. In particular, I want to get at this idea of there being two sides to a story. This is about trying to understand those situations where two things seem to be right yet they contradict each other, and that makes it hard to pick a side.
Generally in such situations, there is appeal in both the viewpoint that I have held up to this point and in the new viewpoint. Typically what I’ll say in defense of the old viewpoint is, Come on, it can’t be that bad to do things that way. What the new viewpoint will tell me, in response, is, I know you think it is, but the old way of doing things is just not very functional. You are being dragged along by the momentum of that way of doing things. Eventually you’ll realize that if you are to grow, you will not be served by the old way. You will have to change.
“Old” and “new” aren’t the best ways to classify the two different viewpoints. For instance, in my own life the viewpoint that “smoking cigarettes is unhealthy” is old. Having been born in the 1990s, this is the view I was raised with. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I had any idea that anyone ever thought cigarette-smoking was a neutral or even a good thing. As a child I just assumed that everyone always knew that, except people still did it for some reason I couldn’t imagine.
In general, however, “Old” and “New” are sufficient classifications. They basically work.
Everything is Sorta Not True
Of course, newness itself is not what we’re after. It’s growth. Truth is simply what works. When we search for truth we are essentially asking, What shall serve us?
When we’re sold on the idea that there are multiple sides to a story, this question can be difficult and even impossible to answer. It seems there is no answer. Perhaps we’re doomed to a miserable, half-alive state like the one I was once in.
For several years, when I was unsure of where to stand on whether to eat meat (i.e. I saw both good things and bad things about it), I was convinced that there was no such thing as a healthy diet. I tried to eliminate the word “health” from my vocabulary. I thought that anyone who said their diet was healthy was kidding themselves. It didn’t matter whether they were raw vegans or on the paleo diet or Standard American dieters. They were all fools.
This pessimism didn’t paralyze me, though. I still made many changes to my diet, which included explorations of vegetarianism and veganism and cutting out refined carbohydrates (i.e. cane sugar and enriched wheat flour).
Indeed, I made changes that helped me to feel better. I was making progress. What plagued me, though, was that everywhere I saw compromises. I didn’t believe there were any truly good foods. Instead, I only saw foods that were bad for you, and others that were less bad. So my approach was to cut out anything that was outright bad and to settle for the foods that were less bad.
(By the way, I know the proper English is not as bad, but just play along with me here. Or don’t.)
The thought process was like so: Fruits and vegetables are slathered in pesticides, but I suppose that’s not as bad as GMO corn; and that, in turn, isn’t as bad as wheat, which isn’t as bad as cane sugar, which isn’t as bad as corn syrup, which isn’t as bad as aspartame.
I worked from right to left, cutting out the worst stuff first and eating the less bad stuff insofar as I perceived that I needed it to survive. Because, of course, everything that I ate was simply less bad than something else.
There have been a handful of times where I’ve sidestepped this paradigm and actually felt that what I was eating was good. But it’s never long before I try a new diet and then see that what I once thought was good is merely less bad than something else.
The thought process remains the same. It’s only the specific foods that change. Organic, raw fruits and vegetables are surely subject to problems, but they’re less bad than conventional fruits and vegetables, and those are less bad than cooked fruits and vegetables, and those are less bad than nuts- which are cooked even if the package says they aren’t-, and those are less bad than seeds, and those are less bad than cooked legumes, and those are less bad than cooked whole grains…
This is roughly the view emphasized in an article I wrote called Coming to Terms with Toxic Eating. This view says, It’s all a vice, but some vices are less harmful than others.
This is a perfectly valid viewpoint to have. It espouses the idea of relative truth, which is where I began this article: There are no absolute truths. There are only truths higher than those which you hold now.
Off to the Side: The Highest (Higher) Truth
The thought process above kind of sounds like, Coffee isn’t as bad as marijuana, and marijuana isn’t as bad as aspirin, and aspirin isn’t as bad as alcohol, and alcohol isn’t as bad as sleeping pills, and sleeping pills aren’t as bad as cocaine, and cocaine isn’t as bad as heroin, and heroin isn’t as bad as methamphetamine, and meth isn’t as bad as rat poison.
It’s another series of relative truths. Yet at the same time, there’s me standing to the side of it, saying, Well, do you really need any of that? And the answer is no, of course you don’t. You could go your entire life without consuming any of those things and be perfectly fine (I’m serious, you caffeine addicts).
Is that, then, the highest truth—that while each one of those things is less bad than another, you ultimately don’t need any of them? Or is the idea of a highest truth still a sham? Or is it just that what I assume to be the highest truth here isn’t so at all?
This supposed highest truth in regard to drugs be like a monk saying in regard to food, “Sure, organic fruits and vegetables are the least harmful foods, but you could just meditate all day and never eat anything at all!” Is that the highest truth in regards to food? Or is something amiss? Is there another viewpoint entirely that could be taken here? Or can I simply not know until I try (i.e. not eating long-term), which is something I may never do?
What if I just plain don’t need the highest truth? What if I’m perfectly content to live out my life below it?
Some people are perfectly content to drink coffee every day, letting themselves go through life addicted to caffeine. No one sees this as a crime, yet everyone knows that this is perfectly unnecessary behavior. It’s just bean-water that contains a drug. You don’t need it, but it seems to be fine and well to have—even regularly.
However, when people drink alcohol every day, those of us who don’t do so feel a twinge of concern for them. And when we see people shoot up heroin every day, the majority of us throw up our hats and say, “Well, they’re dead.” Yet they themselves are fine enough with that level of truth to continue living in it—even if they aren’t perfectly content in that miserable, half-alive state.
Perhaps truth is never a need. It’s just desirable for those of us who care about growth, serving others to the best of our ability, and/or being fulfilled. I would like to imagine that most people care about being fulfilled, except for those of us who live at such a low level of truth that fulfillment sounds like a pipe dream.
No one is permanently stuck at their current level of truth. Moving forward is just a matter of how willing you are to suspend your current paradigm and try something different—and how long you can do so for. Right now you might be able to turn away from your dominant beliefs for only a few minutes. But with consistent practice in a new paradigm you’ll be able to do so for longer periods of time until the dominant beliefs are no longer dominant, and you’ll see the world differently than you did before.
The only way to be sure of whether a truth would be, for you, a higher truth is to try it on for yourself. If it’s not true for you then, as far as you’re concerned, it just ain’t true. And if it ain’t true, chances are you ain’t gonna touch it with a ten foot pole. So it just ain’t your reality. Even if it potentially could be.
Truth and Relationships
Admittedly, the subject where my mind is currently most split right now, and which led me to right this article, is that of loving relationships. This is an area of life where I generally haven’t taken a healthy approach, where I am quite immature, and where I’m downright ill-experienced.
I have questions about relationships that I have barely scratched the surface of: How is love with another person supposed to feel? What does a healthy relationship look like? How often can I think about someone I’m attracted to before it becomes obsessive? Do I have solid convictions about this person, or have I succumbed to wishful thinking? I think the idea of trying to “get over” someone is silly—do I have a point, or am I just justifying addiction? Is it futile to label relationships? Do I have much of a say in this area of my life, or should I just accept what life brings to me at any given time?
Sometimes it seems to be one side of the story. Other times, it seems to be the other.
Right now, my attitude is similar to that pessimistic attitude I’ve held toward food. Well, I suppose this person is less bad than this one… I’m also hilariously uncertain. Am I in love, or addicted (sounds like, “Am I nourishing myself, or drugging myself?”)?
As far as I can tell, there are no strong role models in this aspect of life. This is exactly how I’ve felt about food. There are people, both in the media (usually writing their own blogs and books or hosting a podcast) and who I know personally who are very helpful to specific explorations. For instance, while I don’t admire what they do, this is like how pick-up artists know how to hook up with a woman for a one-night stand, but they can’t tell you bunk about how to have a healthy, loving relationship. Similarly, there are people who fare well with long-term monogamous relationships, but only so much of their approach can be applied to open relationships.
There is no “super mentor,” nor is there anyone who can provide ideal answers to all of my questions. The best I can do is pay attention to people who live intelligently, at least in some regard, and explore paths that I suspect will bear some fruit. And always, always keep asking.
The Ever-Rising Top
If there is an absolute truth about this reality, it can be stated roughly as follows: We are all one. However, because we are individual physical beings, we cannot hold that truth in its completeness. So the best we can do is continue to climb the latter of ever-higher relative truths, without ever reaching the absolute top (yet at the same time we’re always there, in a way). As Lil Wayne said, The top gets higher the more that I climb (indeed, even in rap music we may find truth).
As long as it’s leaning against the right building, climbing the ladder is pretty fun anyway. :)
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