Contradiction and Truth

                                         Each moment, as we nearer drew to each,

                                        A stern respect withheld us farther yet,

                                        So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,

                                        And less acquainted than when we first met.


                                        We two were one while we did sympathize,

                                        So could we not the simplest bargain drive;

                                        And what avails it now that we are wise,

                                        If absence doth this doubleness contrive?


                                       –excerpt from the poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau, 1840


Having recently reviewed the 2014 film, “Ask Me Anything,” written and directed by Allison Burnett, which is based on his novel, “Undiscovered Gyrl,” I was struck by a scene in the film where the female lead in the film is presented with a list of “Ten Bitter Truths,” supposedly in response to her request for “lessons about adulthood.”

What struck me most was how cynically slanted the list was and, as a result, I felt compelled to respond with my own less cynical commentary.  The list appears below and the numbering of my comments mirror the numbers in the list.

                                                                                              Guernica by Picasso

Ten Bitter Truths

1.    Complete honesty is a complete lie.

2.    Marriage is sacred only to those who have never been married.

3.    Money is more integral to happiness than romantic love.

4.    Every human being is a contradiction; some hide it better than others.

5.    Never underestimate the tendency of human beings to act contrary to their own best interests.

6.    Were it not for the fear of being caught, most of us would behave like savages.

7.    All sex has consequences, most of them dire.

8.    The older you get the faster time flies until months pass like days.

9.    There’s no such thing as living happily ever after.

10.  Everything gets worse.


Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. 

1.    It isn’t so much that complete honesty is unachievable or that we are somehow incapable of it, but rather that complete honesty isn’t always the most advantageous approach to every situation. There’s no reliably clear advantage to being brutally honest at all times, and even when we might be uncertain, to varying degrees, about what the complete truth of a certain circumstance might be, expressing that uncertainty under some conditions may work against us. The framing of our responses, in a way that mitigates the consequences of those circumstances, it could be argued, can ultimately produce a more desirable outcome, depending on the particulars.  Humans are adaptable by nature, and if we can enhance our ability to adapt, and also improve our ability to survive and thrive simultaneously through sharing a proportionate degree of honesty, in specific instances, the benefits of doing so can outweigh the rigid structural framework of what might be described as “complete honesty.” This is not to suggest that such mitigation is appropriate in EVERY circumstance, but rather, that mindless conformity to any absolute principle of unmitigated honesty or to its opposite, at all times, could sabotage our human abilities for adaptation and mitigation, which might be essential to our long term survivability.      


2.    The nature of human interactions with regard to the sacred or the divine aspects of our humanity are not dependent upon any specific institution, and what we describe as “sacred,” refers to elements that have no universal criteria to define them or by which we could, in every case, fairly judge them to be so described. Even in a common social relationship or in a specific religious context, the “sacred” can exist within it, regardless of the milieu in which it occurs. Marriage can either be sacred or not, and relationships which exist outside of institutional marriage can embody the “sacred,” just as reliably as those within it. The idea that only people who are not married think of marriage as sacred underestimates everyone.        

3.    Determining what constitutes happiness is a completely subjective judgment, and while financial stability can be an important component of our well-being generally, to say that it is more integral to happiness than romantic love is to denigrate the value of both money and romantic love.  “What does it profit a man to gain the entire world, if he suffers the loss of his soul?”  How could any amount of money compensate for a bitter loneliness or an absence of any meaningful interaction with our fellow humans? How often have we heard about couples who have very little in the material sense who are otherwise living happy and balanced lives? Romance is not a cure-all certainly, and it ebbs and flows in every loving relationship, but suggesting that money is MORE integral than romantic love to happiness is just plain wrong.           

4.    Contradiction in a person or in an argument implies some sort of logical incongruity or denial of what otherwise represents an expectation or understanding of a person’s character or the premise of an argument. The entire universe is a conglomeration of opposites—hot and cold; north and south; east and west; male and female; fast and slow; young and old. To suppose that we might be able to escape our contradictions in the way we feel, the way we think, and in many of the ways we live our lives, would be to deny our very nature as a part of the entire universe. Each of us must decide which of the tendencies toward the opposites we will assume as we navigate through our lives, and rarely does anyone follow a single inclination in any of the innumerable ways in which we might engage life through the years. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a contradiction at all times and that some people are just good at hiding it.  To be human is to change, and to adapt, and to innovate, and to grow, and to learn. Some of us accomplish these tasks with greater ease and ability than others, but changing is less a contradiction than it is a part of our nature to adapt and grow—to progress.           

5.    This is just a variation of the contradiction argument. What may appear to others as an action that is against our own best interest might actually serve us better in the long term. We are constantly changing and adapting and learning from our mistakes, and as we navigate through the trials and tribulations we encounter, we sometimes fail to choose our actions as wisely as we could. Deciding which actions are in our own best interest and which are not requires a learning curve usually, but to assume that we should expect it as a matter of course ignores the obvious benefits of failure which can serve as a guidepost to making better decisions in the future.       

6.    This item is one of the most cynical of all these ideas.  Anyone with even a minimal amount of life experience can recognize the value of civilized behavior, and if we are minimally observant—just reasonably astute—we can figure out that acting like a savage is a zero-sum game. In the earliest history of humankind, life was indeed savage, brutal, and short. Tribal warfare was common and weaker groups were routinely conquered by the stronger ones. Civilization took a really long time to get past the most savage stage of our development through the centuries.  Suggesting that we are now still all just savages beneath the surface, and only restrained by the consequences of savagery is to ignore the historical record of humanity’s progress into the modern world.  Of course, there are individuals and groups that can act in ways that are reminiscent of our savage roots, and we haven’t completely conquered our instinctive drives in every corner of the world, but empathy and altruistic instincts also are strong within us now, having evolved beyond the early history of our species, and rational, intelligent, and generous humans exist on a much greater scale now than ever before in our history, and to suggest otherwise is cynical in the extreme.     


                                                                Balance of Energy is a painting by Deidre Harris    


7.    The consequences of engaging in sexual activities can fall within a whole spectrum of results, depending on the individuals and circumstances in which they take place. Most of them are not dire, thankfully, but engaging in them recklessly or irresponsibly can have serious consequences, and if we simply use reasonable caution these days to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, the consequences can be far less dire than suggested by this idea. Most of the dire circumstances that result these days aren’t because of simply engaging in sexual activity, but by doing so without regard for routine precautions, or when inappropriate or unwelcomed by the other person.  To say that most consequences are dire is simply not true.  



8.    While the years definitely seem to pass more rapidly as we age, even as we approach the later years of our lives, it takes exactly the same amount of time for a year, a month, and a day to pass. When we are five years old, one year represents a fifth of our lives.  When we are 70, a year is 1/70th of our lives. The perspective of years is an obvious factor in how we view time, but even as an older person, months don’t seem like days and the exaggeration isn’t really helpful.  Each and every day is an opportunity to engage with life and to experience a limitless variety of possibilities to fill up the days, weeks, months, and years. If we proceed mindlessly through the hours and days of our lives without a deliberate choice of some sort or without some degree of urgency regarding a purposeful action to serve those choices, time will catch up with us eventually.  Learning is a life-long activity and whatever our circumstances, with personal effort, and maybe some help from our fellow travelers, we can find a way to make use of our time that can slow things down a bit.      



9.    While the concept of living “happily ever after” is usually introduced at a very early age in children’s stories and fairy tales, it isn’t meant to suggest that living “happily” means without any challenges or difficulties for the rest of our lives. We can live a life that we can consider “happy” generally, even though it may contain “bumps in the road.” Children need time to accumulate life experience in order to grasp the broader implications of how one might be able to live as life progresses, but they will usually bounce back in spite of encountering innumerable challenges at a young age. Even in the face of some personal tragedy which might occur, they often demonstrate a resilience that can surprise most adults. A happy life isn’t one free of difficulty.  Inevitably, it is one that has some capacity for overcoming adversity when it occurs; one that appreciates the joys when they arrive; and one that strives to make something worthwhile out of the time they are given.   


10.  This one is the most cynical of all.  Lots of things can get worse given the right conditions, but there are plenty of things that can get better given the same chance.  We can either actively contribute to our own betterment or allow our actions or inaction to result in our own detriment at any given time.  Of course, there are times when detrimental events occur that are beyond our control, and we don’t always have the luxury of choosing the results when life occasionally “happens,” but we usually have a choice as to how we respond to what happens, or at least how we think about what happens.  Not everything gets worse.   


“Eternity may not the chance repeat,

But I must tread my single way alone,

In sad remembrance that we once did meet,

And know that bliss irrevocably gone.”

–excerpt from poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau


Adulthood does have its challenges, and our lives and ways of being are not without a degree of contradiction, trials, and imbalance, but even as we reflect on any “sad remembrance,” each of us must recognize that for every “bliss irrevocably gone,” there is inevitably a subsequent opportunity for new experience—another opportunity to say, “We two were one while we did sympathize.”

6 thoughts on “Contradiction and Truth

  1. I’d tend to agree with number 8.

    My take is that once responsibility takes hold (marriage, children, 9-5 job), the opportunities for spontaneity and adventure naturally become more scarce and as a result, there can be a certain monotony about life. My first 30 years crept by at a snail’s pace, filling every day, night and weekend with as much variety, fun and adventure as I could. The last 18 years seems to have flown by in comparison, with the daily grind at work turning each day into a scene with Phil Connors and Punxsutawney Phil.

    Of course, the arrow of time stays on course, and of course, no day is different in length from the next. The important thing is, like you say, how you fill it.

    And what of the notion that final moments of our lives see time in a different way, with a perception of all previous life events occurring at a breakneck speed in the fraction of a second (the NDE phenomena) and that subconscious/unconscious time is different than clock time?

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. It’s interesting that you seem to have experienced the reverse perception of what conventional wisdom says about time, which is that when you are spontaneous and filling every day with variety, fun and adventure, time usually flies, and when we are experiencing the routine grind at work each day, the time seems to drag. When we are fully engaged in activities we enjoy, we “lose track of time,” and when we are faced with “the daily grind,” the clock takes forever to get to five o’clock.

      During Near Death Experiences, studies have shown, that people’s life experiences do rapidly “flash before your eyes,” during what has been called an LRE or life review experience–“a vivid account of your life-long autobiographical memories.” Scientists who have studied this phenomenon suggest that “…these memories replay in your final breaths because the part of the brain that stores memories may be the last to go.” Studies also suggest that “…a representation of life events as a continuum exists in the cognitive system, and may be further expressed in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.” A recent investigation by researchers at the Neuropsychiatry Lab at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center, reported in the professional journal “Consciousness and Cognition, Vol. 48,” that participants in the study “…admitted, in what felt like final moments, time was no longer a tangible measurement. They couldn’t quantify how long these flashbacks were–short or long.” One respondent said, “there is not one linear progression, there is a lack of time limits…I was not in time/space so this question also feels impossible to answer.” Apparently, these flashbacks also “don’t happen in chronological order like what’s conventionally thought.”

      Our perception of time while awake, is different than when we dream also, but it seems more likely that the passage of time in temporal space is restrained by our physiology, but subconscious/unconscious time is unrestrained as a result of being outside of our experience of spacetime.

  2. There are ways I would like to think and ways I do think. The two lists are never exactly the same. They merge and move and slither. There are days when I almost think entirely as I would like to think and put an interpretation similar to you own on that list of points. There are other days when my thoughts take the cynical and destructive approach you rightly criticize.

    So again, perhaps nothing about our nature is fixed or immutable. Perhaps we sometimes think one way and at other times slip into less helpful lines of thought.

    The happier a person is, the more he will think your way. A more despairing character, or a person subject to occasional negativity, might be prone to agree (or to agree more often) with the ten bitter truths.

    Is it psychology or is it physiology? Do we have a choice in the way we view the Ten Bitter Truths or are we buffeted by our moods which in turn are determined by our physiological make up?

    If our genetic inheritance makes us prone to agree with the ten bitter truths, are there ways we can fix it? If we can not fix it now, will science eventually provide us the means?

    1. Anthony,

      As always, your close reading and thoughtful pondering are much appreciated, and inspire me to provide a commensurate response.

      Our true nature may have some features which are inescapably human or reliably predictable in the broadest sense, but your point is well taken. Our thinking is (thankfully) amenable to changing or being modified based on the condition we are in when it takes place, and the necessity which might be created by the circumstances in which we may find ourselves, but at some point, it seems to me, we have to take personal responsibility for our thinking, assuming we are not otherwise impaired by injury or malady of the brain. I have often suggested that it is clearly possible how a long series of misfortunes over a period of years can seriously impact our general outlook, and one could hardly criticize someone with such a challenge to their well-being, and if everyone around you is amiable and generous and kind and you have no serious deficits with regard to basic needs, it’s certainly much easier to be optimistic generally, but even in the face of an awful run of luck we can still be hopeful, and with all our physical and social circumstances well-attended, we can still long for something more. I believe we DO have a choice in the way we view our circumstances, but our psychological and physiological conditions can either be optimal or impaired in some way, requiring us to strive harder to overcome adversity when it occurs, and to appreciate good fortune without taking it for granted that it will always be available.

      We know now that one of the most compelling and advantageous aspects of our 21st century brains is its plasticity. Our adaptability, our capacity for discovery, curiosity, and higher level learning have resulted in our modern world, and while the advantages have produced a number of astonishing accomplishments over centuries of human endeavor, it has also produced an equal number of dangers and hazards that could easily result in serious consequences for our species, and we must be vigilant in our ethical and judicious use of our talents and capacities or we may eventually extinguish ourselves. Thus far, our species has adapted and thrived, but our approach to what might be described as a list of truths, requires a more balanced emphasis than what was presented in the film.

      We may be genetically inclined or prone to develop psychological pathologies based on our inherited familial chromosomes, and we may suffer deficits in our early environment which negatively affect our capacity for optimism, but we are making progress on each of those fronts with genetic research into our “genome,” and modern treatments are being developed all the time for a variety of serious psychological challenges. Oftentimes, we can find ways on our own to compensate for our deficits with persistent effort to do so, and while there are no magic pills for bitter truths, seeing the world “through a glass darkly,” or with “rose-colored glasses,” isn’t going to help as much as a genuine effort to understand ourselves and to strive for balance and equanimity whenever possible.

    1. Cameron,

      Thank you for your generosity in sharing your kind words about my posting. I enjoyed the film actually and thought to give it a look when the preview for it described it as a coming-of-age tale of a young woman who wanted to take a year off between high school and college, who was counseled at school to “start a blog,” as a means of figuring out what she wanted to do. It seemed interesting enough and held my attention well enough to consider a response to the list. The fact that it was based on an actual living person really gave the story quite a punch.

      I enjoyed writing my responses and always look forward to comments from my readers.

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