Friday, February 23, 2007

You Can't Handle the Truth!

Sometimes, people don’t like the naked truth. I hear people say all the time that they would rather hear the truth than a lie – that honesty is the best policy. But I think that’s a LIE.

Who REALLY wants to know that someone thinks they look fat in their new dress, or that someone thinks their haircut is ugly, or that something isn’t going to work out the way they planned, or that human beings are all too often as cruel and vicious as the most savage animals? No one, that’s who.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to create a family history for an Honors Social Studies class. The assignment was to create a written and photographic portrait of your family and present it to the class. For me, things didn’t go well on presentation day. I’ve never been one to varnish the truth – especially when it comes to creating a history – and I guess I don’t feel an appropriate amount of shame about the pieces of my family’s background that don’t polish up all that well.

I was so pleased with my presentation, and I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous standing in front of a classroom of my peers with a slide show, a family tree drawn on three sheets of posterboard, and several pages of what I thought was excellent writing regarding my family’s most recent history. I explained at the start of my “speech” that I had decided not to go back further in our history than stories about my great-grandparents because I believed that their story, and those of my grandparents, parents, and my brothers were the ones I could best grasp – and best illustrate for my peers.

I started by talking about my maternal great-grandfather and his brother who came from Ireland to the United States stowed away in a boat. They both made it to our welcoming shores, but my great-grandfather’s brother died just a week after their arrival from a fever. My great-grandfather met my great-grandmother when he moved into a boarding-house in the South End of Boston. She was attracted to his thick brogue and his dark hair and his deep green-blue eyes. He wrote home in a letter that he never sent that “he’d met a woman who he thought would rear fine children.” They married in a church just outside of Boston and moved into a home on Branchfield Avenue in Dorchester. My great-grandmother bore eight children – my great-grandfather spent the better part of their childhood drinking and womanizing; he died in his sleep from what was presumed to be alcohol poisoning when my maternal grandfather was just fourteen – he was forty-three.

At this point in my tale, my uncomfortable looking teacher started up from his seat and announced we’d take a break. I was approximately eight minutes into the program. He ambled over and told me that he wanted to see the rest of my presentation before I went on.

“Why?” I asked, not understanding at all.

“Well, I think some of what you’ve said so far might not be appropriate.”

“Not appropriate? But it’s the truth – when you give a history, you don’t lie, you give the truth, right?”

“Well, I just don’t think that some of it is appropriate – there are ways to talk about things without getting too specific. I’ll go over your presentation and then you can make it later in the week.”

While I wanted to argue, I really couldn’t afford to get a bad grade on the project, so I relented.

Apparently, the fact that my great-grandmother might “rear fine children” and the fact that my great-grandfather womanized and overdosed on booze – not appropriate.

Also not appropriate:

Mention that my both set of my grandparents divorced – and that my paternal grandfather married the ex-wife of my paternal grandmother’s brother. The fact that the large Irish families on either side were largely divided over the divorces and the actions by certain parties after the splits was also not an appropriate topic for my history.

Mention that my mother’s father would park the car, with her and her siblings in it in front of a bar while he drank – or that my parents’ families were both so poor, they often didn’t have enough to eat or wear and six or seven siblings shared a bed.

Photos of my grandfather during WWII and my father during Viet Nam. Portrait style photos were fine, but nothing that showed guns or my father or grandfather covered in dirt and grime on the ground in Germany or in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Also labeled “totally inappropriate” – a photo of my father and his Viet Nam buddies watching a USO show featuring scantily clad dancers and another of them holding a dead rat in the air.

Mention of the bathroom in the home of my father’s grandparents which was basically a room with a pipe in the floor and newspapers for toilet paper.

Mention of my gay uncle and aunt – and their long-time partners.

I was furious. I decided that if I couldn’t do my presentation the way I wanted to – I wouldn’t do it at all. My parents went to war for me with the teacher and then the principal and then the guidance counselor. In the end, I didn’t finish my presentation and the remaining members of the class who’d not presented yet were excused from the assignment as well.

I learned something from that incident about truth – and about history – and about myself.

About truth. The truth is ugly sometimes. The truth sometimes makes people uncomfortable. And a lot of people will say they want to hear the truth, but they really – really don’t.

And about history – most people would like you to think that history is what HAS been – but, I think we all know that history – at least the school version of it – is the collection of facts that school systems and teachers are most comfortable talking about – most comfortable discussing. The painful, the ugly, the untoward parts – are simply filtered out. This is a small part of what makes me a “digger, someone who chases bare history - who conducts as much research as possible when I want to know about a period of time – or a specific incident or person. When I want to know what really happened, I like to look through as many things as I can – to work toward getting toward the bare and the uncomfortable. I know that there are sill things I’m missing – presumably, the same truths that might make a teacher uncomfortable might also make those who record history just as uncomfortable. And when it comes to history – I am such a fan of the horse’s mouth. I think when you’re asking pointed questions, and you’re speaking honest truths, and you don’t shame a person – they WANT to tell you the whole truth – the real history. And that history is likely more interesting – and more telling – and more explanative of what a person or people have come through – and who or how they’ve become – than any kind of glossed up, beautiful story.

And finally – about myself. I am not ashamed that my family’s background is less than easy to swallow. In fact, I’m proud that my parents came through a background of difficulty and poverty and divorce and drinking to be sound, loving people who produced smart, proud children. And I’m not ashamed of truth.

I guess I’ll close by saying that lately, I’ve thought a lot about truth. With all that’s going on in the world – and all the lies that have been told and uncovered by our political and industry leaders – I wonder if we haven’t created, through years of hiding “blemishes” and keeping people/ourselves comfortable, a world where lies are superior to the truth. And, honestly, who’s to blame? Is it our society as a whole – our entire world order? Is it that we lie to ourselves all the time to stay “right with the world” and we don’t know any other way to function as individuals/a global group?

What are your thoughts on truth? History? I’d also be interested, before I go digging, to know what parents out there think of today’s history books and classrooms… Has the advent of the internet changed things altogether? What about 24-hour cable news? And blogs


Kelsey said...

I went to a Catholic high school, and one of the few history teachers was, as many parents characterized him, "a socialist." Truly, his politics were liberal in a school of conservative thinking parents and students.

Mr. Lennon taught us from a book called "Lies my Teacher Told Me." I think it's become pretty popular. Basically it retold U.S. history without the lies about Columbus discovering America and explained the truth about the conquest of the country and the autrocities that occurred. It was very eyeopening to a lot of 15 and 16 year olds.

I agree wholeheartedly with this post. Modern society (and I'd say the United States in particular) thrives under the lies it has set up. Maybe people are finally getting tired of it? Hopefully.

Nic said...

I don't know that people are getting tired of lies...lies, or even have-truths, are easier to handle. I just taught my students (college kids, freshmans to seniors) two slave narratives. I gave them a brief overview of the history of slavery as we began our unit (try writing a brief overview of that!) Then one student said, "Surely slavery wasn't as bad as these books say? Aren't they exaggerating?" He also wanted to know why one slave wanted his freedom when he was "allowed" to work and keep some of his own money and was fed and had a place to sleep...

The "truth" is hard because we have to deal with the guilt of the past (all of my students, whites, felt upset because they felt "guilty" reading about slavery). It's easier not to learn it at all.

Rachel said...

Have I mentioned how glad I am that you're back to blogging regularly?

You made some good points here. Learning from history, from family to the world, is important. I think high school is an appropriate time for students to learn truths.

Chrissie in Belgium said...

I agree totally with the content of this post. I wish we could discuss views on truth and history in more detail. Why is it so difficult for people to see the whole truth and see the beauty of success for those who have gotten through and truly suceeded like your parents? Your parents struggle and ultimate success is diminished if we do not have the guts to see the whole truth. Life IS a struggle. If you only acknowledge the positive elements, how can we understand the struggle and ultimate glory of success.

My father recently died. Now I love my father - but he did some terrible things. And he did some good things. Within the family some of us wanted to just pretend the bad didn't exist. That is bullshit. I am for seeing the whole truth, exposing it and finally accepting the bad and loving the good. Why must history be turned into a fictitious glossed over story? All of life is beautiful. The struggle is beautiful, because it is so hard. If everything were simple and easy, we would not be able to understand the glow of even partial success. I respect you Nicole. Don't change.

I agree, most people just do not have the guts to accept the good and the bad.

Sasha said...

First of all, I'm so glad you are back on your blog! I missed your postings.

About the truth, I think nowadays there is no such thing. People are so accustomed to lying that their lives depend on it. I guess it's in human nature to prefer lies to truth, as it's just easier to live that way and not be totally disguised with yourself and others. People only see and hear what they want to see and hear and therefore lies make it so much easier. People are not capable of being honest with themselves first of all, and when you can't be honest with yourself, completely honest and not pretending like you are, you can't name yourself an honest person or the one that prefers truth to lies. Truth stings your eyes out and that's the truth, lies are sweet and comfortable. The world, as it is now, developed a new ability - to not just make others believe in lies one is telling but actually convince oneself that those lies are true.

The world is so much different from what we believe it is but we are too afraid to open our eyes to see it.

Great post by the way.

cass said...

i love studying about "history" for these same reasons. it is one of my favorite things to read about. because history is by nature biased, in that in order to write about anything at all, you must NOT write about something. the past is just as infinite as the future, and it is interesting to sit down, and question a perspective of what may have happened, and try to seep through biased information to see what any particular author is hiding, or how their politics effect their views, and effect how we remember things.

of course, there are all kinds of "lies" and "truth" regarding the less-grave and more personal things. in that area, i tend to be one of the notorious many that you mention here. i get it from living in japan i am sure and i am certainly my mother's daughter. when it is about things like telling someone they look fat in a dress, stuff like that, i go with saving face. it is a subtle art for some, but it works well among people in certain cultures. to not say what is on your mind, because it is not necessary to say it. it may seem like mind-reading to many people i guess. growing up in american culture and japanese, i found the extreme value of "honesty" by americans, and see many americans interpret japanese reactions as the opposite. it isn't seen as dishonest though to refrain from saying things you think here though. because you may convey your true feelings through body language and tone of voice. it saves people embarassment, and feeling uncomfortable.

sorry to go off on a tangent there. i know you are talking about something else. and your example you gave of the school presentation, well, i totally see that, and i can identify with that having experienced similar situations myself.

there really is no clear differentiation of why i feel both things sometimes. i guess it depends on the situation for me.

^0^ i think you are awesome and your straightforward nature are an asset to you though!

Nicole P said...

Thanks for all of your comments.

Regarding the teaching of history - it just makes me crazy that we're still glossing over things that we could LEARN from... I mean, is it any wonder we get ourselves into trouble again and again? As a country - as a people? Although lies maybe be easier, more swallowable, they lead us down the same dark paths on repeat.

Chrissie - I would agree - ALL of life is beautiful. How we know what is "good" is by knowing the direct opposite - by knowing "evil/bad." I've gotten in trouble more than once by simply keeping my mouth closed as others fawn over a deceased person whose life was never as beautiful, as fulfilling, as wonderful as it was after their death.

I'll admit to sometimes not wanting to see the truth - and sometimes telling lies to spare others - but when you're talking about history - or family history -things that are important - things that are critical in terms of who we are as a people/who we've become/who we could become - the truth is a sometimes painful ESSENTIAL.

Cassandra - I would agree around cultural tradition sometimes governing our behavior around truths that could hurt or embarass others. The thing is - here in America - I get the sense that people will SAY they want to hear the truth (I don't know how many times I've heard someone say "I'd rather someone tell me the truth than try to spare my feelings"- but when someone actually has the nerve to either speak up - or say something very clearly with their body language that comes near the truth - they'll face the wrath of a very angry person.