Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thanks for the Epitaph!

Writing newspaper columns leads to reading some interesting commentary on oneself, in letters to the editor and even full-on responsive columns.   A fun variation here is the anonymous “Sound Off” section, which may be my favorite section of the Sun-News.

Until recently, one of my favorite “Sound Off’s” was one that opined that I would likely move downward from Earth, rather than upward, after death, because of my views on same-sex marriage.
Recently a Sound Off delighted me even more.  It read:

"In Sunday's Sun-News, Their View, Peter Goodman sounds like a person who is always learning but never comes to a knowledge of the truth."

I read it two or three times.  It was thoughtful, in an interesting way.  I decided that if I were planning to have a tombstone, I’d like this chiseled on it.  “Here lies a man who always kept learning but never reached the truth.”

Although "truth" wasn't capitalized, I'm guessing the paragraph wasn't intended as a compliment.  It might have been; but the column referenced,Opponents of Marriage Equality Seek Governmental Support for Intolerance, probably offended some people.

Whatever the author’s intention, I decided that if I were planning to have a tombstone, I’d like that chiseled on it.  “Here lies Peter Goodman – who always kept learning but never reached the truth.”

I certainly hope I'm always learning.  I feel as if I am.  Albert Einstein wrote, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.  The important thing is not to stop questioning.” He also wrote, “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”

I assume the reference to my inability to come to a knowledge of the truth was meant to chide me in some way – though the neat thing about this particular Sound-Off was that it might have been a kindred spirit’s gentle praise.   Either way, it’s a keen observation.

I do believe in truth-telling.  Or, rather, I have a taste for telling truths, or what seem to me to be truths, particularly those that aren't recognized as such by the world around me.

Yet even when I’m passionately involved in telling what I see as “truths,” I do not forget to doubt.  I keep in mind that great line from F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Whatever I believe I immediately challenge.  The woman I love has an old VW bug with a bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

“The Truth” as a concept troubles me.  There are so many conflicting truths!

I know many people who believe they know “The Truth” and are virtuous, strong, happy, and committed people who do a lot of good in the world.

There are also people who bomb abortion clinics or Boston Marathons in the name of The Truth.

Many of both the do-gooders and the bombers would say that faith or religion or God makes them do what they do.  I tend to doubt it’s God’s doing at all.  I tend to think the people who do good are built that way, wanting to do good, and that the particular religion or system they follow is rather like a language they use to express their goodness, The twisted folks who bomb and shoot people do so out of some sad inner need, and Jesus or Mohammed or patriotism is how they rationalize their actions.

The less dramatic problem is that people settle on “the truth” and stop thinking.

Sometimes I envy them.  It must be relaxing to believe one central thing so deeply.

But from a very early age I understood life’s central challenge to be recognizing how futile most everything is and yet continuing to struggle as if one had no idea of that futility.  (The Fitzgerald quote, I learned the other day, continues, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”)

In my view, one ought to face without flinching the world’s cruel absurdity, and our own insignificance in the universe, neither denying reality nor becoming embittered by it.  Yeah, without a comprehensive code of conduct, deciding what’s right can be troublesome; but even with some religious or legal code, individual cases have a nasty way of being difficult anyway.  Often stray facts make it unjust in a particular case to apply the rules of Justice.

We are curiously resilient creatures.   Knowing full well that we face a potentially disastrous drought and woefully insufficient water, we can still take joy in the blooming and breeding flora and fauna of our corner of the desert.  (Researchers we know unwittingly echo the Fitzgerald quote, explaining the desperate nature of our situation while choosing hope.)  On the point of death, we can laugh and joke.

I criticize no one who chooses to take refuge in a particular creed or practice or belief system.  Part of “never coming to a knowledge of the truth” is never being so proud or condescending as to suppose my way is somehow best for everyone, that it is necessarily “the right way” for someone else.
Somehow I can’t take any such refuge.

Anyway, my heartfelt thanks to the “Sound Off” contributor, for helping me continue the journey.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 12 May.]

If you're from beyond the county: as you likely inferred from the above, the Las Cruces Sun-News runs a daily feature, "Sound Off", which consists of emails and transcriptions of phone calls on various issues of the day.  As a columnist, I read my name in Sound Off comments now and then. 

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