Lies, truth and meaning

I was reading an article recently about whether it was ever okay to lie to children, and it got me wondering. The article was talking in terms of outright lies, such as Father Christmas, or a school who faked a spaceship crash to stimulate the children’s imagination, in the process convincing some children that it was genuine, to the point they became extremely upset when told later that it wasn’t.

My response to this is no, it’s not okay with me. We’ve never made much effort to persuade our children that Father Christmas is real, and I feel that it’s hard enough for them to learn about life without them having to figure out whether the adults around them are telling the truth. All too often I’ve seen adults tell children something that to an adult is obviously wrong, but the trusting child will blindly accept it, lacking the maturity and experience to know any different.

There’s another type of lie to children, though, that I do think is okay, and that’s as defined in the Science of Discworld series of books: a lie that later helps to understand the truth. One example that comes to mind is the idea of electricity flowing like water. This type of lie is part of learning; it’s the process by which we develop our understanding.

But when it comes to the truth, can we say there is absolute truth, or do we construct our own truth? In many cases, it’s more like our interpretation; two people can see the same thing, but understand something different from it. “There’s three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.” Does that third side actually exist? Or does what you see as the truth depend on where you are looking from?

This made me wonder if we take things further and construct our own meaning as well. Another concept from the Science of Discworld is that of narrativium – the element of story. I follow the stories of several families facing various difficulties, and I notice that generally they tend to have a strong religious belief; they have a strong feeling that there is meaning in their lives. It’s easier to face trials if you have a deeply ingrained feeling that these trials serve a purpose, rather than believing that life as a whole is meaningless.

Does that meaning have to exist outside of ourselves though? Does there have to be an absolute meaning, or is it enough to decide that the element of narrativium exists, that things happen the way they do because that is the way they are meant to happen?

To me, the difference is between feeling that things happen randomly and feeling that things happen as they should. Between bewailing things I don’t like and looking for the purpose in them. Between despairing and giving up, and pushing forward and looking for the way to make the best of things.

One example is someone who lost her job, and spent a lot more time than usual with a parent who shortly afterwards died unexpectedly. Losing her job was unpleasant. The parent dying was unpleasant. But the two events happening in the way they did meant that she got the most out of those few months. Looking for the benefits from things happening the way they did will surely improve life, even if there is no outside force giving that meaning. The meaning is there because we look for it, because it happened and therefore it means something. We make our own meaning in life, and it’s up to us whether that meaning is positive or negative.

With this in mind, I choose to believe that there is some underlying thread of narrativium in life, and to follow that thread and act as though it is real; whether or not it objectively exists is not as important as looking for it. Sometimes we see the pattern afterwards, where at first things appeared random. Sometimes belief in something calls it into existence. And sometimes a belief can make life easier, whether or not that thing is real.


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