Telling

Where to start? Tell the truth. Actually, scratch that, because most people aren’t even close to being able to properly articulate the truth. That’s why artists, scientists, mystics, philosophers and so on have been so revered throughout history. They have been skilled at the immensely challenging task of articulating the truth, which is not something for anyone. But there is something else that everybody can do, which is not to tell the truth, but to refrain from saying things they know are false.

Telling the truth is objectively hard, because you might think that you’re doing a fantastic job at it, even when you’re not even coming close. In fact, experiencing it as a trivially easy task is a dead giveaway that you’re not all that good at it. As Nietzsche well pointed out in his critique of Truth with a capital T, and of the Enlightenment that was beholden to it, was that truth comes at a high price that few of us are actually willing to pay. In most of the great religions we’ve had the practice of sealing up people in monasteries and temples just so that they could pursue truth. They wake up before the sun shines, many of them sacrificed most of the things we’d recognize as pleasurable in life, many of them undergo years and years of training just so that they can adequately open their mouth and have some truth come out of it. Artists, too, know this struggle so well, when they see something as being the case or being a valuable insight and they pour their whole being into bringing that piece into life, sometimes in ways which make them utterly disregard their own health and safety. You even see it in journalists when they really want to get to the bottom of things instead of just write pieces that allow them to survive. Truth has always come at a high price. While you might experience it as easy – such as in chronic cases of Dunning-Kruger – it it objectively hard.

Not lying, on the other hand, is subjectively hard. I’m not saying it’s easy, as saying things we know to be lies is a fundamental building block of society. You might really have to swim upstream in order not to perpetuate such lies. Being one among many entails committing to the many’s way of speaking about things. But sometimes that manner of speech might not line up with your own judgement. When going from the slumber of being just one-among-many to being someone – individuation, as it is called, or living ’authentically’ as it was known to Kierkegaard, Heidegger and so on – you’re going to have to stop telling some things which you know are lies. It’s not enough to simply think them.

The reason is not simply because you might be telling lies to protect others, but rather, it’s going to feel really, really hard when the one you are telling those lies to is yourself. Lying to yourself allows you to not change. This is not to say that lying to yourself is some kind of plague, we developed that capacity through evolutionary pressures. Lying to yourself allows you to keep doing what you’re doing, which might be much more energy efficient than trying to figure out the truth of things. Every time you have to revise your thinking, your brain goes into panic mode. Your whole being goes into panic mode. Because thinking is hard; we don’t think a lot. Our brains compute a lot, but we don’t think a lot at the end of the day. Because thinking is expensive, and you are hardwired to be really thrifty with your brain.

Every time you are forced to think something anew, such as when you refrain from saying something you deep down know to be false, a change occurs not merely in you thinking, but in your whole being. That’s a pricey process, evolutionarily speaking. And evolution works by striking a balance between cost and payoff. When the safety of the comforting lie is pulled away, you are left spinning, and you are forced to reorient yourself. It entails a change, en element of flux, within yourself. And that’s really taxing, which is exactly why we have developed the subjective trigger which makes us experience it as really hard and scary. Because you’re sailing on rocky waters when that happens. That experience does a damn good job of keeping you away from it most of the time.

A lot of people, when they’re younger, try to jump into it through the deep end. They overestimate their capacity to articulate the truth, just like they overestimate their capacity to drive at 120km/h, or overestimate the amount of toxins their body can handle. Overestimating your capacity to drive might get yourself killed, as does overestimating how much alcohol your body can handle. Overestimating your capacity to articulate the truth, and then getting crushed in the process, will leave you disillusioned and nihilistic. It will not leave you dead, but something perhaps even worse, namely being dead inside. Not because disillusion and nihilism correspond with truth, but because it stops you from hurting yourself in the future by making the same mistake. Your body has outlived the death of the self when you conclude that there is no truth to be articulated, so you might as well just be a cog in the machine.

Think about the process this way. A lot of people go to the gym because they seek to get stronger. So they load 220 lbs on the barbell and want to be one of the big guys. Or they even start out small, but then get cocky and increase the load too quickly. The load they attempt to carry doesn’t match a realistic rate of improvement, so they overload and hurt themselves. They go home, rest, come back to the gym and find themselves a lot weaker than when they arrived at the gym on that fateful day. So they go home, turn on the television and tell themselves that being strong is useless in our mechanized civilization anyway. Putting 220 lbs on your back is like picking up a bag of trash for weightlifters, but it can snap a novice like match stick. In just the same way as with carrying a physical load on your back, you have to respect the work that goes into the craft of articulating the truth. But if you start with just arriving at the gym and working with an empty barbell – i.e. refraining from saying things you know not to be true – you will learn the motions and can start to slowly put more weight on it.

That’s what Nietzsche warned us about Truth. Not lying is the first step towards being able to articulate the truth, and you have to slowly accumulate the load of not lying and saying how things are instead – you can’t jump into it through the deep end, that will destroy you. The subjectively experienced difficulty of not telling lies – and one day articulate truths – is not a reflection of the difficulty of the challenge, but rather a safety mechanism that discourages you from overindulging in it. It’s not objectively hard to not say something, that’s a subjective difficulty.

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