To Tell the Truth

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.

Envisioning a New World: Keepers of Innocence

*This is dedicated to all those in Connecticut who in their hour of darkness remind us that we are the light*

In media reports about killings, the word “innocent” is used primarily in reference to women and children, implying subliminally that the death of men is somehow more fathomable because they are not inherently as innocent as women and children.

In mass killings, “innocent children” get top billing over all others, implying subliminally that the death of any adult is more fathomable because any adult is not inherently as innocent as a child.

Fair enough.  If we feel compelled to decide worthiness of life, history tells us there have not been a lot of women, and certainly not a lot of children, causing problems in the world.

But ‘death of innocence’ sparks our emotional outrage and upheaval from a much deeper place than just identifying who is more or less deserving of life or death.  It comes from the fierce helplessness we feel in seeing the world reflecting back our own loss of innocence.

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The African philosophy of Ubuntu says that we become who we are through each other; one reflects what another sees in, or makes of, them.  This philosophy tells us we have a sacred responsibility for each other and that protecting the innocence of one is everyone’s work if innocence is to thrive anywhere.

In our frenetic, pressure-bombarded world, as adults we understandably become so overwhelmed that we forget that WE are the keepers of innocence.  Having had own child-like spirit taken away, we forget then that every child learns to hold on to or let go of their innocence based on what we show them.  They learn from every expression we offer, every word we speak, every motive we evidence, every visual we create, every lyric we sing, every stance we take, every blame or forgiveness we extend.

When tragedy such as a school shooting strikes, we don’t stop to think about all the ways the perpetrator learned to forget his innocence.  We are quick to try to identify a single cause to blame, then we get on our bandwagons and demand change.  Gun control.  Mental health services.  Bullying.  Parental involvement.

In our search for answers and comfort we look everywhere but at the possibility that the single cause of any manmade tragedy is that on our forgotten innocence WE raised a perpetrator in a world riddled with fear instead of love.

When war, killing, bullying, competition, separation, performance, greed and revenge are glorified in every manner of entertainment, education, media, marketing, religion and history telling – and we support these glorifications with our time, attention and money – blaming gun control and lack of mental health services is a like saying the fork caused the holiday weight gain and we lack therapy to cope with our flatware problem.

The best thing any of us can do in the face of a tragedy like what happened in Connecticut is to take a good honest look at where we as individuals further any measure of fear or violence or suppression of kindness, compassion and individual spirit in our world.  ANY MEASURE.  And commit then to transform it to love.

This is how we restore our own innocence as well as ensure that our children’s remain blessedly intact.

In the new world I envision, we have all learned the lessons of those who sacrificed their life to show us that darkness calls for our light.  And we all remember, as last, that we are the keepers of innocence.