Truth, Authenticity, and the Evolving Story

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Milky Way galaxy

One of my personal struggles is allowing myself full freedom to be wrong and less than perfect. Of course technically I’m never really perfect, but I often delude myself into thinking that I shouldn’t start, do, or even say something unless it is the absolute best possible, not just compared to what I’ve done before but compared to what others are doing. This affects me as a dancer, as a student, as a teacher, and as a member of the dance community.

I know many of us struggle with this perfectionism and lack of ability to start, do, or say for fear of it being less than enough, whatever “enough” is. And many of us struggle with intolerance for the wrong and the immature in others. The following is a series of quotes I’ve come across over the past year (with a little bit of commentary) that remind me to be more accepting of my own truth, authenticity, and evolving story as well as those of others. I hope you enjoy them.

On Truth

We often talk about truth like it’s a static object that we either have or don’t have, with the wise possessing an advanced level of understanding that others either can’t or refuse to see. But this line of thinking ignores the reality of three things. First, truth is enormous. Second, because of this enormity truth is something we are constantly growing into; the more we learn, the more we realize there is to learn (and are reminded how often we’ve been proven wrong). Third, because of the unique personality and experiences of each individual, everyone has access to and understanding of different parts of – or different angles on – “the truth.”

Of course we should keep in mind that, as Richard Rorty wrote, “To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.” We are not negating truth, but we are recognizing the imperfections in all of us when it comes to understanding truth. Rather than being discouraging, this recognition should be liberating. So often we expect teachers to be right about everything; when they’re not, we judge their instruction to be inadequate. This inadequate instruction is then seen to have negative implications for students, who are expected to be trusting that their teachers have “the right answers.” There is of course an element of truth in this, but I love these words from Gil Hedley, who gives a balancing perspective:

It takes some bit of courage to offer ideas to the world. If you continue to develop, which is very likely, what you’ve offered almost immediately appears from your maturing perspective to be very partial or just plain “off,” even though it was the best you had to offer at the moment. However, if you wait until you “know it all” before you say anything, you will likely never get around to sharing much. And so all teaching amounts to the dissemination of partial truths (and therefore partial falsehoods). Every one of us with a practice, clientele, patient base, etc., are essentially teachers who are placed on the spot every day to say something that someone else may cling to as gospel truth the moment you utter it. From the “teacher’s” perspective then, speak with what humility you can muster, as your story is undoubtedly a partial one. And on the receiving end, take it all with a grain of salt. The story is alive and changing. And if you think you have come upon the exact and final distillation about something which will remain an indisputable “truth” for all time, well, allow me think about that for a good long while before I get back to you on it!

On Authenticity

But if truth is something we are always growing into, does that mean that when we are less mature we are somehow less truthful? Not if we think of truth as a journey and not an outcome. What we believe right now may later be overruled, but is that first or second or third belief not a stepping stone that allows us to reach the fourth and fifth and sixth? Albert Einstein once wrote that our partial truths are not destroyed in the absence of some greater ultimate truth:

[C]reating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.”

Sharna Fabiano frames this in terms of authenticity, for both the individual and the larger dance community:

It’s tempting to idealize the past. Foreigners and natives alike fantasize about some fixed moment in history when tango was “authentic.” We try to channel that moment, to become it…

Dance traditions are created by human beings, and dances, like humans, shift and change. Argentine dancer Olga Besio wrote, “The tango is a living thing, like a human being.” Think about your own life: your hairstyles, favorite music, and political views. Which is more authentic, you at 6 years old or you at 32? If someone wants to get to know you, they listen to your stories, meet your family, and spend time with you. They gradually learn about your life in its entirety, as it has unfolded this far and how it is unfolding now.

On the Evolving Story

Seeing the world in this way means seeing the truth not as a static object but as something that continually expands for us as we experience and learn. I love these quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson from his essay, Circles:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens…

Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series. Every general law only a particular fact of some more general law presently to disclose itself. There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us…

The result of to-day, which haunts the mind and cannot be escaped, will presently be abridged into a word, and the principle that seemed to explain nature will itself be included as one example of a bolder generalization…

The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul.

All of these words remind us to be patient with ourselves and accepting of others. In dance communities there is much talk about what, who, and whose dancing or teaching is correct or authentic. While these conversations can be productive and meaningful, very often they break down into judgments of inferiority and superiority that do more to validate one’s own static position than to pursue greater understanding. They also increase the pressure we put on ourselves and others. Honoring the evolving nature of truth and authenticity in imperfect beings gives us the courage to offer something to the world, trusting that with the right motivation it will serve only to expand our circle(s).

To read more…
• Gil Hedley’s Facebook page, Integral Anatomy, with lots of thoughts on evolving (and embodied) truth
• Sharna Fabiano’s article, Navigating the Quest for Authenticity in Tango
• Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Circles

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