Convenient truth

Creating a 'reality' to conform to our convictions is a recipe for delusion, and sometimes disaster

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerMay 4, 2013 



There’s an old story about a man anxiously pacing around under a corner streetlight late one night, looking down intently. A passerby stopped and asked what was wrong. The man said he was searching for a quarter he’d dropped. (Quarters were worth searching for when this story was young.)

"And you dropped it right here under the street light?"

"No, I dropped it down about the middle of the block, but the light's better here."

Not the funniest story in the world, but I've always liked it, because it seems to illustrate a tendency many of us display in deciding what information, true or false, we'll use in constructing and polishing our own personal world view and in choosing how to deal with the rest of humanity. If the existing reality is not to our liking, we simply create one that suits us better and proceed to base our lives on that new reality. We search for the quarter under the street light, not back in the dark area where we dropped it.

I've been reminded of this all too human but sometimes catastrophic approach to living by the terrorist bombing in Boston. The alleged bombers, natives of a country whose people have undergone wholesale uprooting and displacement, grinding poverty, and bloody warfare waged against them, were given a new start in this country which, despite its flaws and imperfections, gave them opportunities beyond the dreams of many of their countrymen. To an outsider, their futures looked bright. Many native-born Americans could legitimately envy the possibilities laid before them.

From all accounts, the alleged bombers saw a different reality, one in which their adopted country was determined to wipe out Islam, their religion. And one in which a legitimate reaction to the perceived threat was to launch bloody attacks on innocent men, women, and children.

The mother of the two has her own truth, one in which the entire bombing episode was faked by the United States. Fake blood, fake casualties. All to encourage hatred of Islam.

I have a memento from my service in Saudi Arabia that's framed and hanging on the wall within my view as I write this. Written as an official, and routine, expression of thanks for my efforts, it is headed "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." It expresses the hope that I have seen, as I worked among the Saudis, "how we appreciate all mankind and wish them peace and welfare." The letter points out the drive for peace that long ago arose and spread from that part of the world, through the teachings of "the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Koran," and it expresses hope that the United States will continue to always side with right and justice.

The letter, accompanied by a portrait, is signed by Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz, now the King of Saudi Arabia. Obviously his truth was different from that of the alleged bombers and their mother.

But it isn't just terrorists, jihadists, madmen who look for and think they've found truth that conforms to their chosen world view, finding it under their own peculiar streetlight because it's more satisfying to search there. You and I are susceptible to the same temptation, though it may never approach the bomb-throwing stage. And you can see it in action around you.

You, as I, may suffer the never-ending torrent of Internet delusions, spawned by nameless creatures who amplify and pass on claims of political evil, treachery, welfare abuse, and any number of other breathtaking horrors. These are usually unsupported by provable fact, and are not signed or attributed to any known individual, but if they conform to your own private world view, you are expected to agree and pass them on. This is, in a somewhat less bloody form, the same approach to life as that taken by the alleged bombers and their mother. It's different in degree, not in kind.

Truth is often difficult to dig out. But we ought to search for it even in the disagreeable darkness where it often is, rather than in the satisfying glow of the streetlight, where it isn't.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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