When our children were young, we had an agreement with their teachers: “We promise not to believe half of what they tell us about you, if you promise not to believe half of what they say about us.” This went a long way toward preventing hasty judgments and angry accusations. In fifteen years, no teacher we encountered was the worst, meanest or most incompetent; nor were we the parents whose phone calls they dreaded returning. Sometimes half of our kids’ complaints about a teacher were true, but our commitment to arrive at an understanding of the truth together with the teacher saved us a lot of unnecessary embarrassment.
I was reminded of this yesterday, while reading a deluge of Facebook status updates about the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, most of which began with the phrase “Can you believe THIS?” and included a link to an article with the headline, “Jews Ordered to Register in East Ukraine.” Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. Moreover, I couldn’t believe how many of my FB friends believed and shared it. When rumors that fit with our perception of truth are reported as facts, we are easily persuaded to believe them wholeheartedly.
More disturbing to me was the post on a colleague’s wall of an article with the headline, “Mayor ‘Kind Of Agreed’ with White Supremacist Accused of Killing 3 at Jewish Centers,” which was followed by numerous comments invoking the f-bomb alongside characterizations of this mayor as ignorant and evil. I don’t disagree with these assessments of the man; I am merely concerned that in venting our outrage we fail to deal with a deeper issue—the fear and pain his remarks stir within us.
Am I troubled by these recent developments? You bet I am. I was incredulous, and felt utterly betrayed, as I read Frank Bruni’s op-ed. The realization that I’d believed the wrong half of the truth and argued that anti-Muslim attacks outpaced anti-Jewish attacks here at home was difficult to absorb. When I read the piece a second time, however, I felt validated by Bruni’s confession about his own miscalculations: “While most were motivated by race, about 20 percent were motivated by the victims’ perceived religion — roughly the same percentage as those motivated by the victims’ presumed sexual orientation. I didn’t expect a number that high.” How much do our assumptions and expectations lead us to confirm our beliefs—partial truths—as the TRUTH?
Clearly, humans have a complicated relationship with truth. While we possess a desire to know the whole truth, we mistrust others that claim their beliefs to be true. These competing needs—to maintain our grasp on the truth and to dispel the untruths of others—can cause an unbearable anxiety that impels us to react with urgency rather than thoughtful reflection.
When we are anxious, it is natural to construct a personal narrative to make sense of the events outside our control. It’s easier to blame others for our pain—wrought up with anger we enjoy an adrenaline rush that masks our true terrors—than to confront the fear that resides within us.