The question in the title of this column is something I’ve only begun to ask myself, and I’m still not too sure I know the answer. You see, when I was young all I knew about this world was what I learned firsthand. I watched, I listened, I tasted, and I learned — once in a while spitting something back out as fast as it came in.
Life was simple. Things were good or bad, or happy or sad. Of right and wrong I knew little. I made judgments of sort — some good ones and some lousy ones. I paid a price, but I learned, and whatever happened the credit or the blame was mine alone.
As I grew older, people came along who were not happy that I should learn entirely on my own. They told me about things I couldn’t observe. They taught me how to judge such things.
“This is good,” they said, “that’s bad. This is right, that’s wrong. This is to be sought after, that to be avoided.”
They taught me a lot, laying down rules by which I should judge the world. That being done, they taught me to judge those who would soon come along and be teaching me the wrong way to make judgments.
They pointed a finger. “Accept nothing from this place,” they told me, “but believe everything that comes from this one. And beware! Words do not always mean what they seem — unless they come from the right place.”
It was easy to do. Occasionally it even made sense.
“See these?” they asked me. “These words? These ideas strung along a line of reasoning as perfectly as beads strung on a golden chain? They seem fine, don’t they? Logical. Perfect. But be cautious! Just as the beads strung along a chain grow in size step by step, directing your eyes to the gleaming jewel at their center, so can ideas direct your eyes to a central conclusion, making it flash and glitter, causing it to blind you like sunlight gleaming off a cesspool. Never forget that a single flaw in a train of thoughts makes the conclusion false.”
I thanked them for that wisdom.
“Beware also,” they warned me, “of a truth created only to die. There are people who will fill your thoughts with a false truth, knowing full well it rests on a faulty base and will come crashing down at the slightest touch. And when — right before your eyes — it falls just as they planned, revealing the Great Truth you were meant to discover, you fall into the trap, failing to realize how they tricked you.”
And I thanked them again and went on, certain now that I was at last able to recognize truth and reject falsehood in all its many forms. I lived a long time after that, satisfied with myself and my hard-earned wisdom.
But one day a casual thought crept into my head. I was hearing the truth, and loving both the hearing of it and the knowledge that I had the means to see it for what it was, when suddenly — out of nowhere — came a quiet question, one that seemed almost wicked.
“This isn’t what I saw when I was young. How can that be?”
You see, what I saw when I was young was real. It could be nothing other than true. I saw it. It was. There was no one to fill my head with logic and reasoning; no one to warn me to beware of this or that; no one to teach me how to judge according to the rules.
“If what I am seeing at this moment is the truth,” I asked myself, “how can it be something different from what I saw with my own two eyes when I was young? There can’t be more than one truth, can there?”
Ah, cursed day, Johnny!
That day my neatly ordered universe fell apart.
And so here I am again, on my own. Seeing with my own two eyes, and hearing with my own two ears, a child again in a grown-up universe.
On some days I nod my head in agreement. On others I frown and walk away. I don’t ask anyone to verify what I see. Why? Because I’m stuck with my own answer to a simple question: What is truth?
The answer to that?
Whatever is true for me.
You know what, Johnny?
I sometimes suspect that true wisdom lies in unlearning some things.
I’m working on that.