Okay, we are going to get very philosophical about truth. Ready?
Truth is True (For You)
One of the therapeutic frameworks I use in counselling is Narrative Therapy (NT) and, as you might guess, it works primarily with a person’s relationship to the stories they tell about themselves or others. Criticisms of NT generally centre on whether or not the stories people tell actually represent the truth.
Can something be true for one person and not for another? Do we make things up to suit our personal ‘lenses’ and biases and, if so, what are the repercussions of that? Why do the accounts of the same event differ between people and, perhaps even more mysteriously, why does the telling of the same story change over time for the same person?
Is our truth actually truth? Is it fiction? Or is it a mixture of both?
Is Truth Relevant or Immutable?
A lot of interest (and research) has been undertaken on the subject of differing stories of eyewitnesses who testify at the scene of the crime or accident and then again months or years later. Inconsistencies in the self-reports abound; this is especially true if the memory is traumatic or if the brain has been primed with other ideas and suggestions in the meantime.
We might think that memory represents an undisputable fact, event, or a sensory experience—we remember it, so it happened—but does that really represent the truth of the matter? Studies on memories suggest that they often degrade quickly depending on many internal and external variables. More often than not, memories will change over time.
The basic premise of recent research: each time we retrieve a memory it is informed by our current experience and lens and, thus, it is altered a small amount. Metaphorically, memories are neuronal shape-shifters. Memories can hijack our current experience or can be ‘forgotten on purpose’ forever. We can create memories, repress memories, play with memories, implant memories, and all of it may be done unconsciously. They are very malleable and, therefore, quite unreliable over the long haul.
Personal Truth or Fiction
If you have lived for more than a few decades you may have, upon occasion, expressed some mild confusion about the stories you hold. Examples: Did I dream that memory or was it a real experience? Was it something I was told so many times that it feels like I experienced it? Why does my sibling have a completely different story about ‘that time’ in my childhood?
So, the next question might be, “Are my stories (or memories or accounts) completely true?” Answer: maybe. The truth might be a mix of both fact and fiction. There are indisputable truths (yes, gravity is a thing). But these truths are probably fewer in number and less pristinely tucked away or retrievable than we think.
Does the Truth of a Story Matter?
We love stories. We share stories and we live stories and we live out our stories in community. But we may not always be able to convince that community (or ourselves) of their veracity or value. In other words, what do other people think of your stories and, therefore, you? What do you think about theirs and, therefore, them? Which of your stories are shared and which are not? Who has the storytelling rights to your story?
The answers to these questions might indicate what we believe about the world, others, and ourselves. When we author and hear our own stories, we discern more clearly what they’re about and what we’re about. Stories hold space for our beliefs, goals, values, dreams, and longings and they ensure the transmission of knowledge, experience, and culture through generations. They are our truth…sort of.
It Takes a Village to Write a Story (and to hold all the truth)
But our stories are not written entirely by ourselves. We are vulnerable to the ongoing contexts and systems we live in and our stories may take a sudden plot twist in a myriad of ways. Others may help us see and remember things differently. We may present our truth differently at different times because we want to set the story straight about us or because we want to live into (or out of) the stories told about ourselves.
Re-storying is one therapeutic tool of Narrative Therapy that I use a lot and it can be a vital process for those who have had tragic or depleting stories woven into their life narrative. A hoped-for future life can be written with current and old stories used as reference points—for inspiration or motivation, both negatively or positively. The inclusion of other voices and versions can also be an important part of this process. For example: How would your partner or best friend tell that story?
The Paradoxical Nature of Truth
So, what is truth and what is fiction? Is truth only that which is proved by empirical science (also subject to biases, unfortunately) or is it an ongoing, unfolding revelation in each person, subject to change with the vagaries and seasons of life?
Paradoxically, the opposite of what is true may not be that which is false. It may simply be another truth…or another fiction. Time will tell. Or, maybe it won’t.
Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, RCC, CCC