I have a love/hate relationship with history. On one hand, I love to study it because I get to meet people, learn about their story and what fuel it. On the other hand I hate it when I find out what people did to each other. I wish I had a time machine, go back and act like a referee. But wait, I don’t need no sticking time machine to catapult me in the midst of fighting, blood-shedding, wars or animosity between people. History is repeating itself! Nowadays I see the same hostility ranging from ruthless wars (yes, wars still rage on even as I write this) to more “civilized” wars like the cultural wars of the recent decades, to more subtle (sometimes not so subtle) segregation of groups living in anything but harmony with each other. Is there’s something we can do to change this history and its bloody trajectory? Is there hope to end the suffering we cause each other? What would make us live together in harmony and enjoy each other’s lives? The following is my shot at answering these questions.
History is simply the stage play of ideas. So we need to find out what are the ideas that could have fueled the animosity, the bad blood between groups of people and the suffering and blood shed these groups inflicted on each other. As I pondered this, I realized the answer lies at the intersection of metaphysics, epistemology and anthropology. Let me explain.
Metaphysics deals with questions of ultimate reality, of truth. Everyone has a metaphysic (aware or unaware of it). This is what anchors us and provides us with an operating system. In this arena I find an idea, we hold dear, that relates to our discussion: THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUTH (about whatever particular aspect of reality is in question). Epistemology deals with questions of knowledge, of how and what can we know about reality, about what is true. In here I find the following idea: WE CAN KNOW THE TRUTH. This is a fundamental concept we ascribe to in order to justify our metaphysics, which in turn we need to navigate our way through reality. Here’s how I see these two ideas play out in history and today. Since there is only one truth and I can know the truth, if you hold a different view of the truth than mine, we can’t be both right. I know I am right, therefore … you must be wrong. Since I know the truth and you obviously don’t, I need to convince you of the (to be read “my”) truth and if you don’t embrace the truth I either need to eliminate you or, if that’s not possible, try to isolate myself from you. You are a distortion, a malady that is dangerous to me and society. Now, this is my observation of what transpired in history. My question is: is it possible to hold these two ideas yet have different results? This is the route I want to take, so if at all possible I don’t need to mess with these two ideas.
The only satisfying solution (and trust me, I am very happy I could even have found one) is in the field of anthropology. In short, anthropology deals with questions related to our view of man (or women for that matter), of us as human beings. This is where both the problem and the solution lie for the hostility between people. I now believe that relationships, specifically harmful ones, are caused, at the root, by our view of our own capacity and abilities when it comes to the knowledge of truth. Enlightenment just exacerbated a high view of man, but this has existed ever since there were people. There’s something in us that makes us think higher of ourselves than we really are. It makes us believe we’re more capable than we really are. This is a delicate issue as it springs from our desire to not underestimate ourselves, which we definitely don’t want to do. There is however an idea we need to embrace as we wrestle through all this: THE FINITE NATURE OF HUMAN BEINGS. As much as it’s healthy to believe highly of ourselves, we need to come to grips with our limited nature. We’re just not infinite. Here’s how this is helpful in our discussion. While there is only one truth and I can know the truth, due to my limited capacity I will never know the truth fully, completely, in its entirety. We’re just not capable of this. We’re not God. We’re human, not divine. We only know of the truth as much as we’re allowed by our circumstances, sources of information, historical and cultural context we find ourselves in. The truth is we’re making baby steps in our quest of truth discovery. We all have found ourselves, as we grew up, being wrong about things we were convinced at the time we are right. And that’s ok. The fabric of our beings refutes a relativistic way of approaching reality where everything goes. We (for ourselves) need to know something, to hold to something that can take us to the next step. But as we go through life we should be open to change, to incorporate the new found reality into our matrix of truth. When this is not possible we should consider tweaking or even changing our matrix to allow for the new “data”. But I am going farther here than needed for our discussion.
Even if there is only one truth and I can know it (and I should strive for knowing it), due to my finite nature (determined by inside and outside factors) I have to accept the fact that I might be wrong, incomplete. So when I meet someone who sees things differently than I do, I should not immediately assume he/she is wrong but … and here is the key … try first to understand the other’s “truth”, his/her perspective. Then have an exchange of perspectives on the respective topic and see what we can learn from each other. AND THAT’S IT!!!
If I might be wrong, there is no need to force my “truth” on the other’s throat. Let’s not forget that we don’t learn by coercion, but by our own choice.
This idea can fuel harmonious, active and generative relationships with people of different beliefs (be it political, religious, economical, etc.). This can actually help us all in our ongoing quest for truth, as this way we can complete each other. If I don’t view the other as being wrong, there is no animosity that can grow between us and respectively no bad blood, no fighting and ultimately no suffering.
This is the one idea (the proper understanding of the finite nature of human beings) that can change the course of history … if we embrace it.
And now your thoughts …