I have this friend who is…different. You know the kind, that speaks like the Oracle of Delphi, always with two, or three, or more meanings behind what she says?
A couple weeks ago, she was fired from her job (she refuses to allow anyone to use the term “let go”). She is an excellent worker, if a little scattered at times (she’s a grasshopper, not an ant), and no one puts more heart and soul into her job. The people she works with and the people she serves love her, even though some admit to being exasperated by her occasionally. She seems the sort of person you’d like to have as part of your team.
But here she is, without a job. When I found this out, I was shocked. I asked her, “What? Why? That makes no sense.”
She sighed heavily, and looked at me from under her lashes, and said, “I can tell you the truth, or I can tell you what happened. Which would you like?”
What I liked, or at least what I thought I liked, was for her to tell me both, at the same time, because aren’t those the same thing?
Well, aren’t they?
We live in what some are calling a post-truth world. We hear a lot about fake news, about “truthiness”, about the facts and the perception of those facts and the reportage of the perception of those facts and the tweeting of the reportage of the perception of those facts. At the top of the political food chain this fracturing of narrative is most obvious, but it’s merely symptomatic of what’s going on below — we are losing our grip on coherent story.
Once, I thought that was a bad thing. Now, I’m not so sure.
I teach literature to teenagers. We’ve been reading a long stretch of fiction recently — The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Henry V, A Christmas Carol — and discussing the messages embedded in the books. We agree that the events recounted did not actually happen, but many of my students maintain nonetheless that the books are true. I am inclined to agree with them. The resonance of the tale is true — life-altering in ways that make us better people — even though the facts are not. It is almost as if the facts are irrelevant to the truth.
I find that last bit profoundly disturbing, and yet I cannot bring myself to delete the words, because I believe them, as horrible as that may sound to modern ears. How can the facts be divorced from the truth? How can a story be true if it is counterfactual?
Well. Have you ever done something for which you were given credit — something notably good, in fact — when you know you were attempting to do something quite different and not at all praiseworthy?
I have. The facts are that I acted nobly. The truth is that I was a coward. [NOTE: This is why I hate the movie Dead Poets Society. I was a desk-stander, but when it actually mattered, I sold my friend out. The reminder haunts me, though, as in the film, my friend understood and forgave me.]
The reverse is surely even more common, where we are accused of doing something awful when the truth is we were attempting to do something good and right. The facts are this, but the truth is that.
As a society, we are learning this lesson, but in the wrong way, I believe. I think it’s good for us to finally be hearing the stories of those that have for so long been unrepresented in our narrative. In the sense that hearing those stories lets us re-evaluate a single, heroic narrative (Columbus being my favorite, but far, far from the only, example), it can only be good. Considering other perspectives deepens our understanding and can allow us to be more empathetic, kinder to one another. We can hear those whose voices were long silenced.
But because humans make negatives out of neutrals (absent other forces), the risk is that we will take a bald fact — so-and-so met with so-and-so — and assign it nefarious meaning — so-and-so is treasonously colluding with so-and-so. Thus it becomes almost impossible for anyone to do anything that will not be immediately (mis)interpreted as evil. The facts are irrelevant. The story is all-important. We are plunged back into junior high.
My friend is weary of this, finding herself in a position now where that story construction is assigned the label of truth — a truth that in this case is only by negative inference supported by the facts.
Here are the facts about my friend’s case, as baldly as I can state them: she was accused of violating company policy. It is not the first time such accusation was made. The company sent her home — with pay — and told her they would look into it, and let her know what they found. Three days later, they informed her that they had evidence that she had, in fact, violated the stated policy, and she could resign, or they would terminate her. She refused to resign. They terminated her.
Those are the facts. What is your mind doing with those facts right now?
It is making up a story, isn’t it?
What I wrote in that paragraph above is not a story. It is a recitation of some facts, and that is all. Humans do not crave facts. Humans crave meaning. We use stories — narrative accounts — to tell the facts, because facts don’t matter nearly as much as story does. Whatever happens has to mean something. My very wise friend understands this, thus her cryptic question about whether I wanted to know what happened, or what the truth was.
I didn’t know how to answer her question at the time. But now I do.
If I trust you, I want the truth. I will believe your story.
If I don’t, I want the facts. I realize that this will allow me — nay, compel me — to concoct a story that will undoubtedly be false. As long as I realize that, the power of the story is blunted, and I remain open to other interpretations. I have doubt, which lessens my inclination to be judgmental.
But in our modern society, where we trust essentially no one, we do not realize what we are doing when we lay a personal interpretation over a factual account (oh, how much we trust ourselves, even in the presence of mountains of evidence that we should not do this). The story we make up to tell ourselves is not just true, it is The Only True and Living Truth. And also baldly obvious, such that those who do not believe it cannot be simply seeing the same facts with a different lens, they must be evil.
Thus — simultaneously (humans are such fascinating creatures) — we have a long-overdue development of new historical narratives giving us perspective we never had before, and a calcifying of those narratives in a way that excludes the possibility of truth from any other source. Screwtape must be paralyzed with laughter.
The truth about my friend? She and her employer have been growing apart for a long time. The way she does her job colors outside a lot of lines, lines which were fairly permeable when she got the job three years ago, but which have been growing more wall-like over time, and especially over the last couple of months. Her work is very personal — she spends a lot of time with people in crisis, who have deep emotional needs. I believe her to be exceptionally good at filling those needs, and I’ve seen the results of her transformative power on people who often were in places dark and dangerous. But she doesn’t follow rules well, and she doesn’t do paperwork essentially at all (those of you of RPG persuasion will recognize this alignment as Chaotic Good).
But mature businesses are rarely chaotic good; the best you can say is that they may evolve into some kind of lawful neutral, and that is what has happened to this one as it has become more successful. In other words, she doesn’t fit there, and most of us have been wondering for a while how long she could possibly remain an employee.
This long, apparently.
So the breakup between them, although it was somewhat messy and antagonistic, was, in the end, probably best for both sides. There is no legal action pending, no accusation of any activity that falls outside the law. It’s policy. She asked to see the evidence of her violation of the policy, they showed it to her, and even then the two parties did not agree on whether it constituted a violation. She maintains it did not. They maintain it did.
She lives in a state where employment is at-will, meaning that anyone can be fired at any time for any (or no) reason. The company was perfectly within its rights to terminate her, which she freely admits. What she doesn’t want is to be seen as a troublemaker, someone with a stained past.
That’s very hard to avoid in this case, because of the dichotomy between the truth and the facts. The facts are such that a reasonable human could concoct a narrative that puts her in the wrong (If she’s such a good worker, and so successful, why would they fire her? She must have done something terrible.)
But I am convinced that is not the truth of it. I know her. She would not harm her clients, and she would not harm her employer. The facts do not say she did, either, but what difference does that make? Negative story is the most compelling kind — if it bleeds, it leads — and humans gravitate toward things dark and sinister. I suspect some will do that in this case.
Thus her question. She wasn’t, I finally understood, asking me whether I wanted a recitation of the facts. What she was asking me was if I trusted her.
I did. I do. So much, in fact, that I hired her myself.
I pride myself (probably unfairly) on not being judgmental. I dislike it when I find myself, even in very fraught situations — say, the Kavanaugh hearings, the Catholic field trip kids, Trump’s Russia connections, Harvey Weinstein, etc. — making a narrative for the facts to slide into, because I know for certain that my narrative cannot possibly be true, and thus will almost certainly be unfair to some of the parties involved. Yet, God help me, I still do it.
We all do it.
The facts are important. But only the truth will set you free.
I wish they were the same thing.
Note: all the stories I tell in the above essay are true.