Sometimes differing versions of “truth” are not the result of differing perspectives, but rather the result of emotional upset so powerful even the reality of the masses can be obscured.
A few years ago, I was Deputy Executive Director at a large, high profile charity in Washington, DC. Media from television, radio and newsprint visited the organization frequently because inspiring stories were always in abundance.
One day a television cameraman was upstairs filming “B roll” footage in a warehouse-like packing area while a reporter was interviewing volunteers or staff elsewhere. The cameraman, while lugging a large video camera on his shoulder, spotted a volunteer heading out the door and ran after the person to film them. As he ran, he slipped on a wet spot on the concrete floor and fell elbow first on the same arm with which he was carrying the heavy camera.
I was called upstairs by the communications director and the volunteer director and helped get the cameraman into an office. Bone was protruding through the skin and he clearly needed professional care. With my medical background I was able to clean the man’s wounds superficially and help him through the initial stages of shock until I could convince him to go to the hospital.
The facilities assistant, Noor, was an African immigrant who had come to the organization through a job placement agency for mentally challenged individuals. Noor had mopped the floor just minutes before the accident, and initially he adamantly claimed that, per protocol, he had set out orange caution cones topped with signs warning people to watch their step. But in speaking with the communications and volunteer directors, both said there were no cones or signs posted anywhere.
As you might imagine, this was a very serious incident. The organization relied heavily on positive portrayal by the media and could not risk being seen as negligent, especially negligence that resulted in injury to media personnel.
Noor, a gentle and sensitive man, was deeply shaken – so much so that he began to doubt himself; maybe he only thought he had put the cones out, he couldn’t be sure. The two directors vehemently denied seeing any cones and the cameraman, too, said he had seen no warnings. There were numerous volunteers and staff in the area when the accident occurred, and not a single one reported seeing any “wet floor” caution signs.
After several hours and a great deal of stress for everyone, I was able to review the video tapes from the security cameras, and low and behold the tapes showed there was not one but TWO bright orange cones topped with “CAUTION WET FLOOR” signs in the area of the accident. In fact, the cameraman had slid right by one when he fell. In his panic and desire to be helpful, Noor had actually removed the cones to get them out of the way of the rush of people hurrying to help the cameraman.
The directors, cameraman, other staff and volunteers had no malice whatsoever towards Noor that day; they genuinely did not know what was true. Even Noor himself – the very truth maker – began to doubt what was true. The unexpected emotional shock of the moment focused everyone so forcefully on one aspect of a reality that other aspects became completely obscured from memory.
We become blinded like this in our own lives when, in times of emotional upset, we “spin up” a single opinion or perspective in our mind with such force we cannot see or entertain the idea of any other reality. We do this on a larger scale when we get so caught up in a collective emotional upset (the riot mentality) we lose sight of important details of the broader reality.
We rarely have the luxury of video tapes to prove what is absolutely true for ourselves and those around us, so when we judge ourselves or another person or a situation while in an emotionally charged state, chances are good that some significant portion of truth will go unseen.
Learning to replace reactionary impulses of blame and judgment with objective consideration and language not only helps stave off blinding emotional escalation, it also opens our eyes, our minds and our hearts to greater possibilities of truth.
This is perhaps our hardest and most important challenge as humans, for reactionary impulses are rooted deeply in old wounds and fears. But every such root we are willing to work hard to pull up makes room for new sources of compassion and understanding to grow. And God knows, our world desperately needs more fruits born of these more loving seeds.