Cup of coffee in hand, Chuck was reading a piece from the Washington Post which lamented the death of “fact” and how we live in a fact-free world. Chuck was an internet entrepreneur who had continued to live in DC after graduating with a degree in public policy and international relations. Even in college, he dabbled in and made money out of internet and social-media related projects. It seemed natural to start an internet business after graduation. After all, as Chuck was fond of saying, he was a child of the Age of Information. The irony of the death of the “fact” in the information age did not strike Chuck. Come to think of it the successful people in business, management or Wall Street, have a profound lack of sense of irony
The voice of his partner made Chuck look up.
“Should we continue and spend two weeks repairing the app or should we abandon the project? It is going to cost a lot to repair these damages and come up with the app that we had promised our clients,” his partner said.
Chuck immediately thought of his investors – the venture capitalists from Silicon Valley. What was he going to tell them? Chuck, who was more of a salesman than a scientist, had convinced the venture capitalists that he was this genius-techie who will make them hundreds of thousands of dollars He had promised them 80% of the profits of a promising new app that will go global within seconds of its launch. After all, Chuck was a great presenter full of self-belief. Whenever Chuck made any presentation, he believed it. In turn, the venture capitalists bought into his sales pitch and they believed that that he was this genius who would harness all the promise and potential of this new technology for their sole benefit. They believed that he had multiple successful ventures and had delivered huge returns to his previous investors. Chuck wanted their money and they wanted their money and some more back. And now all that promise and promising seemed lost.
“Chuck, are you listening to what I am saying?” asked the partner.
“Who says this can’t be fixed within 48 hours?” Chuck asked.
“The IT guys, they think that the architecture has issues,” said the partner.
“Forget them; just get me Dave on the line. I will ask him to get his men to fall in line and deliver.”
Chuck was getting aggravated.
The CIO, Dave, was called on the telephone. “What am I hearing?” You guys can’t deliver on this product. What is going on? We worked so hard to get the investors lined up and now you all are bailing on us. Why can’t you just get the work done rather than whiling away your time,” Chuck yelled at Dave on the other end of the line.
“We can, Chuck, but it will take about two weeks. You know fixing the architecture essentially means starting over. Of course, some of the work we have already done will be useful but we will have to redo about 80% of the codes,” said Dave patiently.
“We have to meet our investors’ expectations. We can’t bum around like this is communism or something. I have heard of 12 year old kids in Korea writing a new app in 24 hours and you are telling me that your team of 4 graduates cannot do it in 48 hours? What kind of a circus are you running?” Chuck yelled into the phone.
“I don’t know what you heard and where but you heard wrong. Remember, we are working in 18 different languages to make this a truly global app, and this means different architectures and therefore different time frames. We have to tell our investors the truth,” Dave was getting exasperated.
“When Jay was in charge, we completed 90% of the jobs on time and you are always pushing back on commitments. You are what is wrong. You are the liar.” Chuck hung up.
So easy for us to detect the problem in the picture, isn’t it? It seems evident that the facts are there in clear view and Chuck is not seeing it or as if he doesn’t want to see it. Why doesn’t Chuck see it? What comes between Chuck and the facts?
Chuck appears to have his own belief, his own view of the facts. And sometimes even when the facts of the matter are pointed out to Chuck, he continues to resist change and stick to his belief(s). What Chuck says and wants is true. Everyone else and everything else is wrong or a lie.
Do we all have moments when we behave like Chuck?
We confuse our beliefs and convictions with the truth. Remember, truth. That word connected to facts, to reality.
And though philosophers have always differentiated facts from beliefs, when it comes to ourselves, we use them interchangeably. For us, our beliefs become the truth; our opinions are passed off as facts.
The world comes to us through the prism of our beliefs. The reality of the world passes through the cobweb of the “I” to reach us. Passing through the cobweb of I, with the experience of I, the background of I, the childhood of I, the genetics of I, the truth morphs into our beliefs and we mistake this belief for the truth. It is the “I-ness” covering the truth that prevents us from seeing the truth. It is the “I” that confuses beliefs for facts, “my truth” for “the truth”. Our beliefs and opinions are the curtains covering the theater of truth that we confuse the curtains for the theater itself. The truth is behind the curtain and we need to be able to get behind the curtain.
Chuck has material interest that this project gets completed. “Fix the problem, make a big gain” is his mind’s mantra at this time. The promise of that huge potential gain is obscuring minor details such as the facts or the truth. In addition to the loss of money if the project does not go through, there is an emotional loss for Chuck. He has made others and himself believe the story of Chuck the winner, Chuck the master, the one who always delivers for investors. He does not want to spoil this story, he does want to remove these masks of success. These layers of hope, fear, gain, façade are preventing Chuck from seeing the truth.
So Chuck is holding fast to his belief that this project can be delivered, money can be made, the problem could be fixed within 48 hours. He has difficulty differentiating his sales pitch or spin from reality. He cannot not see anything that is incongruent to that spin (or even lie). Anyone who contradicts him is wrong is a loser, is a liar. His own spin on the facts is hiding the truth from him. Chuck has spun a cobweb and now he is caught in it.
Have we found ourselves telling some story that we find difficult to walk away from?
Are our stories these cobwebs that we have spun around our own selves?
There are also times when we use stories and situations to validate our long held prejudices. Even in simple matters, we use lines such as, “I always chose the wrong check-out line!” or “I always get in the wrong lane and end up behind a traffic jam!” All these lines are stories that we tell ourselves and validate what we already believe – that I often make wrong choices or I am not good at making a choice.
There are many more relevant life situations, such as, “I always knew it would never work out between the two of them, she was always just a gold digger” when explaining why a friend is getting divorced. The facts are lost, the details are lost and the story we spin is used to validate our long held belief about the wife of that friend.
It is the “I” that becomes prominent even when we try to to tell another person’s story or comment on another’s situation. We try to justify our own beliefs and the friend’s story becomes just another tool to do the same. This is another way in which the “I” prevents us from confusing the belief from the truth.
Is there a solution? Could there be such a thing as truth that exists without the “I” or the self intervening and distorting or coloring it? Is there a way to go behind the curtain of “I” and get to the truth in its trueness and starkness? Or are we doomed by the post-modernist thought that truth is relative, it is connected to experiences and each person experiences the truth differently.
There are several ways of going behind that curtain, of peeling off the cobwebs of “I”. As Gandhi said, “The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.” To attain this level of humility, to get behind the curtain, what is required is extensive self- examination. It has been said, “Ignorance does not require the vigorous self-examination that truth-seeking does. Hence, ignorance is vastly well utilized.”
The first and foremost way of self-examination is to fact-check our actions against our thoughts and words – basically assess the congruence between our actions and beliefs. Often we say and believe aspects of ourselves which may or may not be true. One’s actions are generally a better portrayal of who we are rather than our words. Look for instances of incongruence of beliefs and actions and see if a different picture of self emerges. For example, I have said for a number of years that my health is my utmost priority but I have routinely let work and career take over my physical activity time and I have given into temptations of taste without a second thought. Clearly, my actions belie my words.
Another powerful way of knowing one’s self is emotive journaling. This involves journaling first thing in the morning before the experience of the day’s events taint your day. Write down thoughts as they come to mind without censoring. After several weeks or months of doing this, go back and read your journal. What do you learn about yourself? What are your fears, your hopes, your anxieties, your desires? What bothers you? What do you badly want to believe? Accept your fears, hopes, anxieties, desires – your humanness. Be able to accept yourselves.
Such self-examination will require self-compassion since a lot of inconvenient truth(s) may come up. One has to feel free to accept one’s all too human vulnerability. Only by facing those, accepting those, being comfortable with those vulnerabilities will we be able to take the self into account. Such knowledge of the self and acceptance of the self will help recognize the “I” when trying to get to the truth. This will be a path to dissolving the cobwebs, getting behind the curtain.
There are also certain external cobwebs that contribute to tainting of the truth. Look for trigger words that are evoke visceral reaction. Chuck used the word “get his men to fall in line” to summarize his preconceived notion of the world that anything can be done, men can be made to fall in line if money is involved and if the boss shows them who is the boss. The world is not like that. Do you have such trigger words that you use to summarize your belief of the way the world works? If you have beliefs about trigger issues such as racism, terrorism, religion, that evoke visceral reaction, step away from those and try and explain your belief without using the words. By taking trigger words and their visceral reaction out of the picture, reason will prevail.
Another way to know whether the curtain is opaque and the cobweb is dense is by recognizing one’s body sensors. You notice it in the yelling and screaming by Chuck, his belittling of Dave, his jumping to conclusions, the complete lack of non-judgmental listening. This kind of behavior clearly demonstrates the extent of fear that is plaguing Chuck.
Truth comes from the higher self but the veneer belongs to the ego, the wounded self. When the belief comes from the ego – the wounded self – it is from a place of anxiety, anger, irritation, annoyance, guilt, shame and one seems to go into one’s shell. The self contracts; the heart feels tight or empty.
On the other hand, when the claim emerges from the higher self, the mind is expansive, the heart feels open and full. This may be our body’s way of telling us to reexamine ourselves. Can we assess our body sensors and see if our thoughts are coming from the higher self or from the ego wounded self?
Where do we start? This is the natural question that people ask when I discuss this issue with them. How can I pull that curtain, peel off those cobwebs?
Perhaps taking small steps is the way to go. We can start with minor beliefs such as “I always get into the wrong lane” and then see if we can peel the cobwebs of “I” to get to the truth. We can look at the congruence between our words and actions, we can try journaling or even discussing with a close friend, examine trigger words or become more observant of cues from our own body.
And once we are comfortable challenging these minor beliefs, we will most definitely garner the strength and courage to challenge stronger or long-held beliefs. But whatever we do we have to “fact-check all the time; examine and cross-examine ourselves, our thought, our actions. Just as one great philosopher said in an ancient Age, almost 400 years Before Christ (BC) that “an unexamined life is not worth living.
In today’s Age of Information it seems apt to add: “An unexamined self is not worth being.”
© Jignesh Shah, 2016