Truth is a Subjective Matter

One of life’s great truisms is the fact that we rarely see what is going on in our lives at the very moment that we are living this experience. I remember a poignant (in retrospect) moment one month before my marriage in 1985 when, during a weekend in West Cork (my first wife was Irish), she turned to me and asked if we were doing the right thing, marrying each other. Seen now, five years after our divorce, I cannot help but think: she did have a point, as we were – on certain levels – not the person either of us was searching for. But still the marriage went ahead. We were together twenty five years. Two extraordinary children came out of this union – and there were periods of true happiness.

But the other truth of the matter: she was absolutely correct from the outset. As much as I tried to dodge the truth at the outset, what she said that day in March 1985 was so perceptive. Yet a ceremony and a party had been arranged. We both did think, on a certain level, that this was love. Whereas the truth was…

Well, if there is any great truth to be gleaned from ‘the truth’ is the fact: there is absolutely no such thing as ‘the truth’. There are just competing versions of the same story, told subjectively and without much in the way of objective discernment.

Then again, is there anything objective about life? Yes there are certain empirical truths – like the fact that the sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and the tide goes in and out. But beyond that everything in life is, in essence, an interpretation – and we can never rightfully assert that our take on this is “the interpretation.”

As I said to one of my lawyers during my divorce: there was a marriage, and now there are competing versions of the same shared story. Who’s right here? Me, of course! But the real truth of the matter is: no one.

We forget the immense subjectivity regarding the so-called ‘truth’ at our own peril. Then again, one of the more complex and dangerous aspects of the human condition is to look for answers when none are there, and also that desperate and dangerous need to be right. Just as we so often turn angry towards others out of the need for some sort of desperate validation in a world that rarely provides us with any proof that our existence counts.

The British psychoanaylst, Adam Phillips, noted recently in an excellent essay on tantrums in the London Review of Books: “We know that some people’s psychic survival – everybody’s psychic survival – depends on their capacity to humiliate others, to make others experience what they have suffered… to convert trauma into triumph.”

What we also see all the time is that the need to be right – to be told that we are the just person in the middle of an argument – is bound up in the equal need to somehow make up for our manifold shortcomings.

I had a relationship post-divorce with a woman who told me from the outset that she’d had a disastrous history with me, and that she always needed to put them down. “But with you it will be different.” Of course, six weeks into the relationship, the reproaches started. And when I did inform her on several occasions that her behaviour was dangerously alienating, the apologies were fulsome, the declarations of love most passionate, the promises to change vehement.

And yet she kept returning to her default position as someone who needed to be aggressive with the men in her life. Eventually I tired of it and walked out. And I didn’t explain why I was leaving. I simply told her: “This is impossible. Because, at heart, you don’t want to be happy.”

Considered retrospectively I think: actually she did want happiness. She was just too much at war with herself to be able to cope with the idea of putting aside her inner torments and give in to the prospect of a good and interesting life.

The truth is: we are all, on a certain level, in an immense struggle with ourselves. And the trajectory of our lives is so determined as to how we grapple with our demons. Or not.

Everyone has demons. Everyone is haunted. And just about everyone dreams of happiness. That’s ‘la condition humaine’ writ large.

And that, in turn, is one of the overriding themes of “Five Days”: a novel which grapples with the choices made and dodged in life, and how we truly are the architects of our own happiness and despair.

  • Nan Reinhardt

    Was it Flaubert who said, “There is no truth. There is only perception”? “Five Days” touched me deeply because I’m at a point in my life where I’m looking back a little and trying to discern what is true, what is real, what is happy about my life, and how my choices brought me to where I am right now. We so often make a choice based on what we believe to be true at the time and in retrospect, we find a totally different truth was in play. Ah well…as “the architects of our own happiness and despair,” we must work to find peace where we can and enjoy what snatches of happiness come our way.