Sunday, May 25, 2008

Unreliable truth

Memory is like a worry stone or a coin in the pocket you keep rubbing and rubbing, imprinting your desire and vision onto its surface. Maureen Murdock and several other writers whose books I've read over the past year point to the same thing, that memory is subjective and colored by emotion and the stories we tell.

Case in point is the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and, when asked, said, "I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree." It never happened. The story, which has become legend, was fabricated by the minister who wrote a biography of Washington and, when turned down by a publisher, spiced up the book to include that legendary tale, among others, to illustrate the point that Washington was an honorable and truthful man who should serve as a model of behavior. The same thing has been done to demonize, as well as to honor, most notably in the stories we tell about our acquaintances and ourselves. It's the old game of Chinese telephone. Tell a story at one point in a circle of people and pass it along. Does it remain the same?

In relationships, more fights have started over differing memories than anything else and at least one person in the relationship is determined to paint their partner black to gain control or to keep a metaphorical sword of Damocles hanging above their partner to keep him in line and, more often than not, to stoke the fires of jealousy, anger, rage and discord whenever possible. It wouldn't do for the guilty party to become too comfortable or to think the fight is over because it's not. In the eyes and mind of the controlling partner, the fight is never over, and the story changes over time, sometimes subtly and other times more obviously, adding misdeed upon misdeed until the original fault mutates into a moment of horror or evil so black as to taint everything from that point on when it should have been forgotten and left in the past.

I watched my mother dig up ancient dirt on my father, reminding him she was a saint and he a sinner because he made a mistake decades before. It's the same story for many people who have been guilty of some fault or flaw or misstep and have seen the light and become saints -- at least in their own eyes. None are more zealous in uncovering and digging up dirt than a sinner who has seen the light and moved from their wicked ways to the moral high ground, their detractors gaining a new coat of blackest evil along the way that makes the former sinner shinier and more saintly by comparison. Those acquaintances that come into the newly sainted person's circle of influence long after their checkered past has been weighed down by their recent conversion to virtue and never know the real story, hear only the unreliable truth of self-aggrandizing memory. In schools, it's called history.

During a discussion of past misdeeds between newly formed and slightly older acquaintances, one of the former acquaintances said she didn't believe something because it was the same every time she heard it. One of the newly formed acquaintances said, "Isn't that the definition of truth?" "No," she said, "it sounds like it's rehearsed."

Have we become so used to hearing the constantly edited unreliable truth that when the truth is told it is unrecognizable? Is no one willing to dig beneath the layers of exaggeration and confabulation to get to the heart of the story or is everyone so lazy and gullible they will accept anything at face value? Considering how the media keeps rewriting history and constructing carefully shaded versions of events to advance a private political agenda, it looks like truth is quickly going the way of the dinosaur. Truth has become a malleable instrument to spread hate and demonize former friends and acquaintances to build up the texture and imperviousness of the mask many people choose to wear.

Like Judge Roy Bean's soiled doves who, once they became respectable, wanted every new and single female out of town who didn't measure up to their jaundiced and crooked views of respectability. The former soiled doves were determined to forget their pasts while finding new and more creative ways to explain away what once they embraced with conviction and delight, smearing more layers of dirt and filth over the bosom companions they once claimed they would stand by through thick and thin.

Luckily, time is on the side of truth. No matter how many layers of filth must be scraped off, the truth has a way of coming out, usually at the most inopportune moments. It's no wonder people are so angry and full of rage. Somewhere inside, the fear that the truth will come back to bite them in the tender bits gnaws at them. No matter how a story changes, as long as one person knows the real story without the embellishments and exaggerations and outright lies, the unreliable truth will be an edifice built on shifting sands with the tide is coming in.

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