Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Truth

It's a "she said - he said" situation.

That's the first thought that occurred to me as I rode home from school that day, unable to study for my fast approaching law school exams. Sevika had said that she'd had sex with Guru. Guru, presumably, denied it. They couldn't both be right. A classic "she said - he said." Nobody -- save Sevika and Guru -- would ever know the truth.

I acknowledge that. I'll never know whether Guru had sex with Sevika (or in the alternative, whether Sevika's allegation is a false one). I'll never know.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my dissatisfaction with the realization that I'd never know the truth about Sevika's allegation led me to turn to the law in the hope of finding an answer. Courts deal with these types of conundrums every day, I'd reasoned. Judges and juries must have a way of deciding who is telling the truth when the stories of two people conflict.

Sure enough, I discovered, they do. When there's an absence of any other evidence -- like corroborating documents or an incriminating video tape -- jurors just decide whose story they believe. Right or wrong -- for the purposes of "justice" -- their decision is the truth.

That's not to say that judges and juries make such decisions lightly or without the aid of reason. In California -- as I suspect is true in most places -- the evidence code provides some guidance. It suggests a number of factors that the judge or jury may use to help them judge a witness' credibility, like his or her demeanor in court, his or her character for honesty (or its opposite), or the existence of bias, among others.

This system works well. That is to say, it works efficiently. Everyday, men are imprisoned and women lose custody of their kids based on just such decisions. The problem, of course, is that judges and juries make mistakes. They don't know the truth. And in making such mistakes, lives are ruined.

I'm no judge. A judge is expected to be cold, to be removed emotionally from the individuals standing before him seeking justice, to be impartial, and to be decisive. That's not me. Instead, I'm encumbered by life lessons that have stressed the importance of loyalty, gratitude, and fairness.

For one thing, I've always been acutely aware of how it feels to be blamed for things that I didn't do. One morning, for example, when I was about seven years old, my father came into my room, turned on the lights, and angrily interrogated me about our next door neighbor's bicycle. Apparently, one their bikes had been vandalized in the middle of the night and the neighbor said she saw me -- in her garage in the middle of the night -- doing the damage.

I was seven years old, for Christ's sake. Surely, nobody would believe such a story. When I denied it, though, my dad spanked me. Apparently, the neighbor's story was so outrageous that it had to be true. I've never forgotten how helpless I felt at that moment when my word alone wasn't good enough.

To make matters worse, I had another problem when I was a kid. Sometimes I smiled at inappropriate times. This was particularly true when I was being asked whether or not I was telling the truth -- a seemingly regular question during my childhood -- I would smile. Thus, I was seldom believed.

Those experiences not only left me wanting to be believed, but they also reminded me how important it was to assume the good faith of others. They also laid the foundation for my overly developed sense of personal loyalty. That lesson, however, came much harder. It took getting a taste of my own medicine -- my own disloyalty -- to learn it well.

I've already recounted how I abandoned my high school chum, Charlie, when he left the Center. It was only years later, when I myself decided to leave and some disciples, whom I had thought were close to me, instead turned a cold shoulder. That's when I realized how disloyal I had been to Charlie years earlier, when he needed a friend most. Loyalty isn't about standing by a friend in good times. It's about standing by in bad, even when their choices disappoint you.

It's about being unconditional.

I'm reminded of the best professor I ever had, Francis Teti. He taught graduate classes at the Monterey Institute, like "National Security Policy in the 21st Century," which turned out to be Socratic seminars on concepts like agape (or unconditional love). I remember Professor Teti once posed a hypothetical situation in which a father's son commits a heinous act of some kind.

Professor Teti wondered aloud whether he would, in such a situation, ever speak to his son again. At Professor Teti's prompting, a student suggested that if the father's love for his son was conditioned upon the son's good behavior, then by definition such love couldn't be unconditional agape.

The difficulty most people seem to have with the concept of unconditional love or loyalty is that they believe that to stand by someone -- particularly when that person has done something wrong -- is to condone that wrong act. That's flawed reasoning. The father in Professor Teti's hypothetical could still love his son, visit him in prison, try to give him comfort, and hope for his son's further progress (and still not condone the crime).

Finally, I have a long memory for those who have helped me become a better person, many of whom I've profiled on this site before (including Sevika). None, however, have done as much for me as Guru. From the kind and gentle praise he gave me in my early days, to the subtle nudges he gave me in later years, to the direct tests he put in front of me after I had left the Center -- Guru changed my life for the better.

For those reasons, my loyalty lies with Guru.

Update: My thinking on these matters has evolved since the original posting of this piece. See, for example, this post for some additional thoughts.

The photo above is of a beautiful sculpture "Veritas" -- Truth -- by Audrey Flack. Check out her other amazing works here. I love how, unlike the many statues of Lady Justice -- whose eyes are typically completely covered to signify that "justice is blind" -- the eyes of the Truth are exposed.