Friday, March 21, 2008


(I'll be coming back to Joan Halifax's second and third question in a later post. Meantime, some thoughts on truth-telling...)

I’ve heard it said many times since Barack Obama’s extraordinary speech earlier this week that his words served to open the door to a long-postponed national dialogue on race. I agree—both that the need for dialogue has for too long been swept under the rug, and that a door has now finally been opened. But the opportunity will be lost unless we can agree on two essential propositions: that we will tell the truth, and listen to the truth.

Neither one is easy. To tell the truth, we must first belly up to it. Too often—I speak here for myself, but I suspect for many others, too—when truths are uncomfortable, I find ways to hide them from myself. As I suspect you may have done, I have acquired considerable skill in this clandestine art. Denial is one fine option, one that all good addicts know. And most of us have our addictions, whether to alcohol, narcotics, nicotine, sex—or , let’s face it, Jesus, good works, patriotism... We can be as addicted to a benign image of ourselves as thoroughly as to heroin, and that image can be equally seductive and deceptive.

We sometimes need help to see ourselves. Some choose religion or therapy. I myself have chosen meditation and the Buddhist teachings in the attempt to keep myself honest about my own faults and self-delusions. This is what listening is all about—whether to myself or others. Listening is about going deeper, about going beyond the first levels of deflection and deception, about always challenging the next assumption that comes to mind and asking the next question. I know that I am capable of endless mind-ruses when it comes to hiding from a truth about myself that I do not wish to hear.

If it’s hard to listen honestly—and skeptically—to myself, how much harder it is to listen to someone with whom I totally disagree. I tend to agree with myself without a problem. When someone tells me black is white, it drives me crazy. But sometimes, in fact, it is. In their view. To remind myself of this, I keep a quarter in my pocket. On one side it’s painted red, on the other side, blue. If I hold the blue side up for someone else to see, they’ll tell me quite rightly that the quarter is blue. But then they tell me that I’m crazy or deluded if I insist that it’s not blue, it’s red—until I turn the quarter around for them to see the other side. Then they get the message.

So unless we learn to listen to those crazy folk who persist in saying that quarter is blue, we’ll never get anywhere, with race or any other subject. What’s maddening, though, is when you show them the red side and they continue to insist it’s blue. In which case, they’re not seeing what’s out there, in front of their nose: they’re seeing what their mind says—and the mind is a powerful, powerful tool. It is powerful beyond any rational argument. I don’t happen to think that the current occupant of the White House is an idiot, as some people do. I think he’s simply blind to any other view than his own. He is incapable of the kind of listening that I’m talking about. Show him blue and he’ll keep saying red—until, as they say, he’s “blue in the face”!

If we’re to engage in this conversation about race that Obama started, then, we have to learn first to take the blinkers off—or the earplugs out—and to understand that others may see things very differently from the way we do. Then the conversation starts, a true dialogue from which a better mutual understanding could eventually spring. Until we’re ready to be honest about our own beliefs and prejudices, though, and until we’re ready to really listen to others, we might as well forget it.

I’m hoping that Obama’s hope is not a vain one, that we don’t sweep our national problem with race and racism back under the rug. Or, as he nicely put it:



roger said...

well put about honestly facing external, and internal, truths. and good luck to us all in doing so.

one small cavil....i think that idiot, through all of its etymological history, is the proper designation for that man.

PeterAtLarge said...

Point well taken, Roger. Thanks.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Excellent essay, Peter. I fully agree.

This morning Vaughn, my VA supplied housekeeper who is African-American, had such a conversation. It was initiated by negative responses that some of the media has made to Senator Obama’s words.

August said...

I've already commented on Huff Post, but I'd like to add that you've really nailed it with: (I paraphrase) not only telling the truth, but listening to it as well.

Though I've never expressed so succinctly, it is my credo. I'll be darned if both oftentimes aren't thorny.