The truth about truth is that it’s a slippery thing. Easy to bend, easy to break, and it might not even exist at all.
It feels weird to say that because I’ve been obsessed with truth for ages. Readup, the startup I run, has been, in many ways, a quest to promote truth. It began long before “fake news” became a thing, before Donald Trump became president, and even before he became the Republican nominee for president. During that time, I developed an obsession with trying to figure out the difference between information and misinformation, reality and fantasy.
I filled up journal after journal in attempt to find an answer. The truth is out there, I told myself, even if it’s in short supply.
But there are problems with truth.
For one thing, different people have different truths.
Beyond that, humans are good at not hearing truths, even if they’re obvious and undeniable. In one ear and out the other. We don’t hear, and maybe we can’t hear, what we don’t want to hear. Add that to the never-ending list of things that are sometimes good and sometimes bad - things that have something to do with evolution, survival instincts, and making the most out of life when it feels like a giant shit-sandwich.
These days, everyone’s on the lookout for lies. But also, not really. While we’re working to separate information from misinformation, real news from fake news, what’s actually happening is that we’re missing the bigger, more important truths that are right in front of our eyes.
This, by the way, is a bigger problem for old people. Around this time last year, I went back to my high school to do a talk about entrepreneurship and reading, but I was actually there because I wanted to hear from teenagers about social media. When I was in high school, MySpace was big and we stayed up all night on AOL Instant Messenger. These were, truly, social platforms. If you wanted news, you got it elsewhere.
So I asked for a show of hands: “How many of you believe what you see online?” Not a single hand went up. Not by a long-shot. There was some laughter. I was out of touch and asking the wrong question. The idea that things online would be even remotely true was so absurd that a few students invited me to rephrase it. Someone said, “It’s all fake.” The conversation rocked my perspective. At first it felt like a nightmare. But then my fears subsided. These kids are smart, I thought. They know what’s up. They’ll be okay.
Earlier this year, I started hooking up with a dude.
Up until that point, I had never had a romantic encounter with another man, and I remember thinking, Oh my god, this is it. I finally did it. I unlocked everything and now I’m free! I’m 32 years old, by the way, which may or may not be relevant to this conversation. You probably think it is. I’m pretty sure it isn’t.
Regardless, it felt like a pretty big deal. It felt like the kind of thing that would change my life, immediately and forever. In my journal, I took up an entire page to write three huge words in capital bubble letters — FLOOD GATES OPEN — and I decorated the words with geometric shapes using a blue highlighter.
I thought, at the time, that I was done with non-truth forever, because I had wiped out my biggest lie, once and for all. Plus, I was having fun telling everyone I know: I’m queer! (Whoop-de-fucking do!)
Then, I stopped journaling. (And progress on my novel came to a grinding halt. I suddenly had a very new story to tell. My protagonist and I were equally confused. We needed some time apart.) But the few things I did jot down are pretty fascinating to me now. Clearly, I seemed to think that I had undergone some massive transformation. Old Bill was a liar. New Bill was going to be the human embodiment of truth.
Not so fast.
It’s true that I was, quite instantly, changed. There’s no doubt about that. But I’m still fumbling, a lot, with truth. And, in many ways, I’m more confused than ever.
For example: Now, every time I interact with another human being — and especially if it’s a human being that I know quite well — I feel compelled to tell them about my Mexican lover and my month of hot gay sex. But that’s not a normal way to kick off a conversation, even if it’s true. So the lesson here is pretty straightforward: “normal” and “true” have almost nothing to do with each other.
A few days ago, I joined a Zoom conference with some cousins. Several new humans were introduced to the family, including two significant others and a brand new little baby. As the attention started to focus on me, I had no choice. Everyone’s talking about relationships. To talk about anything except my newly-expanded sexuality would be dishonest. So I did, even though I didn’t really want to. Sometimes it’s fun, but sometimes it’s torture.
In this particularly instance, I simplified quite a bit. Then I backtracked. Then I embellished.
In hindsight, I realize that the truth isn’t always entirely available to me. Even when I’m sitting down with pen and paper, trying to be profoundly exact, careful with every detail, I realize that memories are impossible to nail down. Stuff happens. The past is true when it happens, and then it becomes a story. And stories, almost by definition, are full of details that aren’t true.
The craziest thing of all is that I can’t even remember specifically how I fudged the retelling, but I remember feeling like I made the whole thing sound a lot smoother than it actually was.
Come to think of it, I just did the exact same thing to you, reader! “My month of hot gay sex,” is a crock of bullshit. It was definitely hot and definitely a month, but it was also messy and confusing, and it had more to do with love than sex. Actually, no. Actually, I don’t know! What I know for sure is that it happened because I was in an extremely dark place — addicted, lonely, desperate, afraid, and lost. There are a million ways to tell the story. They’re all true. Yet none of them are the truth.
Let’s take another case study: This very thing that you’re reading right now.
Why am I telling you all of this? There are three possible answers.
For me. This is a selfish endeavor and it has nothing to do with you. I don’t even know who you are. You’re some random person looking at a screen. I have something to say and I want to say it. I want eyes on me. I want brains on my words. This is my ego in action, and I can’t help it.
For you. This isn’t about me, it’s about you. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be in my journal right now. That’s always where I’d rather be. Instead, I’m putting myself through the ringer because I really do believe that my writing can help other people. I’m willing to take the bullet if it means creating a positive impact.
For Readup. Who am I kidding? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about Readup. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help my startup grow. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t trying to get clicks, views and traffic.
They’re all true. Yet none of them are the truth. See what I mean?
This week, I got into a colossal fight with my dad. He’s old, with a weak heart; his father, my grandfather, died of a heart attack in his early 50s. Plus, he’s in New Jersey right now, where the pandemic is raging worse than anywhere else. But for some reason I felt the need to attack him. Aggressively. And it was completely unprovoked. I yelled and screamed and cursed and used all of my best/worst language, refined by an education at Stanford that cost him an arm and a leg.
Why? Because I think he watches too much TV. He’s mostly watching the news. He’s trying to figure out how to stay safe in the midst of a frightening virus.
What on Earth is wrong with me?
I could dig this hole twenty times deeper, but what’s the point? (Actually, wait, here’s one more tidbit: I’m currently quarantined in his apartment in Key West, Florida, and not paying rent. Yes, I’m 32 years old. And this time I can’t possibly pretend like my age isn’t relevant.)
Thankfully, he’s bigger than me. So, later, he sent me an email that said, “I will respond when I feel it can come from a candid and honest place.” That email killed me. What followed was the burial:
Sometimes my tennis game sucks, completely just sucks. It happens when I am too close to it. I take a couple days off and WALLA..... Federer look out, I am unstoppable. Ups and downs are expected and common. Breathe and know it will all work out.
And the laying of flowers on the grave:
I believe in Readup, 100%. I also believe in your next endeavor, and the next one and the next one.
I was howling, wrecked. I’m not going to describe what it looked like, but you can let your mind wander. It was cinematic. The neighbors might be concerned. My mom, later, asked, “Do you need someone to talk to?”
Needless to say, I wasn’t ready for another brain-exploding email, but that’s how these things tend to happen. This one was from my ex-girlfriend, who is really more like an ex-wife. The last decade of my life is the story of me and her.
That email was the answer to everything. It ended with a reminder to return to a parable that I used to read to my yoga students, back when I taught tiny, candlelit yoga classes in our small Brooklyn apartment:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
That was written by some monk, almost 900 years ago.
With blinding light, it showed me exactly why and how I’m being a dipshit. It’s not because I’m bad. It’s because I’m working on the wrong stuff.
None of us were ready for what just happened. Dystopia dropped like a mother-fucking curtain. We can’t even answer the most basic questions: What? Why? How? When is it going to end? Is it going to end?
For me, as it relates to promoting truth (online, in the media, in politics, in relationships, everywhere) coronavirus was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I no longer have any interest in finding and figuring out truth.
Truth is an impossible ideal. It’s a lot like freedom. The illusion that it’s possible inhibits our ability to get closer to it.
Conveniently, I think there’s a way for me to grab the baby, at the very last second, as I nearly throw it out with the bathwater. I’ve got a grip on a tiny little ankle, Spider-man style, and if I hold it tight enough, and if I’m gentle enough, there’s a way to achieve a graceful landing. Thankfully, everything is in slow motion right now. That makes things a little easier. Here’s the new plan:
Instead of working to promote truth, I’m going to work on being honest.
Honesty is an inward-facing word. It’s a character trait, a behavior, and a practice.
Unlike truth, it’s something I can do. It’s a way that I can live.
If you think I’m splitting hairs, consider this: There are a million ways to tell the truth, but there’s only one way to be honest. And there’s only one judge that matters.
The honest writer doesn’t need to go looking for truths. They’re always right there. In this case, the truths I needed were on a couple of post-it notes: Are you even out yet? + Big-ass fight with dad + Monk quote.
Honesty is my new personal mission. My only core value. One word to rule them all. I’m pushing everything else off the table to make plenty of room to observe it and experience it from all angles.
I don’t care if other people are honest. That’s none of my business. In fact, it might not even make sense for others at this time. But I know, for sure, that it’s what I need right now.
So, R.I.P. truth!
And hello, honesty! Nice to meet you. You’re actually kinda fun, even though, if I’m being honest, you’re a bitch sometimes too.