“’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all ye need know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
This famous quote from poet John Keats has lived inside me since I was an English Major at the University of Michigan 40 some years ago. I’ve been thinking about it lately, wrestling with this paradox:
What about the truth of untruth? If truth is beauty, and if reality is that which is true and real, how does one find beauty in our current reality, where untruth holds so much power?
I’ve mentioned faith in previous columns, and I’ll share here that my own spiritual journey has led me to have faith in the real. I’ve even said on occasion that “God is The Real,” and “I worship The Real.” This means that I do my best to “accept reality,” which by no means suggests that I embrace complacency. Far from it. To accept reality does not connote that one does not attempt to change reality. Rather, I think changing reality is part of our job. In order to “do good,” we must “accept” reality and then act to “improve” on it.
But again, how beautiful is it that sometimes we seem to live in a post-truth society? There is ugliness in untruth.
We see it everywhere. Untruth about COVID-19 and vaccinations. Untruth about climate change. Untruth about the effect that slavery has had on the development of our country and our laws. This is not about “disagreement.” It’s about the mass endorsement of untruth. Sometimes even the worship of untruth. Untruth has molded our identity. The truth is that untruth has become the reality of our time.
How does one find the beauty in that?
Keats is known as one of the Romantic poets, a term which refers not so much to romantic love, but to the romantic’s interest in the “spontaneous overflow of feelings.” Art of the Romantic period emanated from “deep contemplation of the sublime,” and of a near worship of passion and nature. Historians also note that Romanticism “involved a reaction against the prevailing Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century.” (All quotes from Wiki/Romanticism)
Today, as we slog through the third decade of the 21st century, we witness what might be called a “planned overflow of feelings” as one bitter White senator after another teamed up to try to crucify Judge Katanji Brown Jackson. It was as ugly as it was predictable.
Months earlier, when news broke of Justice Stephen Breyer’s impending retirement, pundits everywhere were opining on his legacy. This was from the New York Times:
“...it was (Breyer’s) fate to be the quintessential Enlightenment man in an increasingly unenlightened era at the court... Justice Breyer’s belief in the power of facts, evidence and expertise was out of step in a postfactual age.”
I wonder... could the Romantics have imagined a time such as ours, when a reaction against the Enlightenment is not a reaction against the rigidity of facts, but rather, against the reality of facts.
Many of us remember Kellyanne Conway’s 2017 assertion of the White House’s right to promote “alternative facts,” an assertion to which journalist Chuck Todd responded, “Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” This exchange led finally to a desperately needed evolution in the mainstream media, and since then, the word “lie” can now be used when addressing the utterance of an untruth. Before this exchange between Conway and Todd, never, ever, did anyone use the word “lie” or “lying” on the nightly news. Now, it seems, you can’t avoid it.
Truth is indeed a beautiful thing. But truth has been laid low by belief these days. The truth is not always comforting. Consequently, in order to feel a certain way, we sometimes choose to not believe things, or to believe things that are not true. It is belief that creates feeling. People want to feel a certain way, so we choose to believe, or not believe...
We all do this, to an extent. But we’re no longer in the Romantic Era. This new truth about our rejection of truth, our disrespect for truth, is not romantic and beautiful. It’s awful and ugly and terribly unhealthy. Yet we people of conscience are challenged now to somehow embrace this new reality: The reality of our time is that there is no shared reality. People can deny reality right to the end, and we’ve seen it, watching Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers actually die unrepentant from COVID-19. Sometimes only in death is reality truly revealed. And often, even then, it’s still not recognized by the survivors. It’s too painful, too shameful, to admit that what you believed was dead wrong. Shame is a driver even stronger than fear.
The stakes are high these days. Our lives are at risk, and so, too, is our identity. We vote now according to identity, and our identity as Americans has been trumped by an identity based on what we believe. Our identity is our source of pride. We all sometimes need an influx of courage to help us choose truth over belief. But it has become clear that you cannot force courage or truth onto someone else. And so we find ourselves in near constant anxiety around what will happen next... How will the next election turn out? What will “they” do? Can we work together, or must we simply defeat them?
Will truth prevail?
And will it be beautiful?
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