In a memorable moment in the film A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson shouts at Tom Cruise, at a courtroom full of people, and at all of us really, “You can’t handle the truth!” Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m not much of a movie buff. I enjoy seeing movies now and then, but if I go a year without seeing one, it makes no difference to me. So the fact that this single line in an otherwise forgettable movie (well, I’ve forgotten it anyway) has stuck with me all these years says something about the power of the statement.
However, I have to disagree with the statement completely. You and I — we CAN handle the truth. In fact, we were built to handle the truth from the beginning because it is nothing more or less than our lives. But we don’t want to. We choose time and time again to turn away, deny, fight off, massage or cover over the truth of the moment. This is true in “good” times and in “bad” although probably more so in the “bad.”
In Chan Master Sengcan’s dharma poem Hsin Hsin Ming, or Faith in Mind, is the following line: “To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”
Notice that the focus is on “setting up” and not actually on the opinions themselves. When something is happening in your life that you like, you go with it. Right? I’d argue probably not as often as you would like to think.
Instead of living out that experience you often cling to it, worrying about the problems that might come, will come, in the future. You want to live in the way you like all the time, so you conjure up all the potential demons that could arrive to destroy your good time. Or, when the good feeling starts to slip, maybe you do something to perk it back up, like indulge in a fantasy, or have a few beers, or a cigarette, or if you really get desperate, some heroin or sex with a stranger, or some other wildly dangerous thing. Anything to maintain the edge of that which you like in your life.
On the other hand, there is that which we dislike. Methods for pushing away are almost infinite, aren’t they? And why do we give in time and time again to the desire to get rid of, or at least take the edge off, of that which we dislike? Because we believe our inner Jack Nicholson! Things start getting irritating, uncomfortable, frustrating, or even merely dull, and up pops Jack shouting his one liner just loud enough, and forceful enough, to knock you into the land of doubt and fear.
“Oh, oh” you say to yourself, “Maybe he’s right. Maybe this will go on for ever and I won’t be able to handle it.” If you pay attention, there’s always some bit about “forever” lurking around in your noggin. Some teenager fills the bus with his loud music and you think “Ah, shit, this will never end, will it?” Your boss makes a policy that requires you to work more for less pay and you think “Am I going to have to put up with this forever? Will it ever change?”
So, the first thing to do about all this is to admit it. Admit that you often don’t want to see the truth. Drop all the “I’m a truth seeker” bullshit and just admit you’re not as keen on the truth of this life as you thought you were. It may seem like caving into good old Jack there, and you might even feel him smile a bit for the moment, thinking he’s got you again. But actually, in admitting, you’re actually converging with your life as it is. You’re stepping into it, not going away from it.
A paradox for sure, but even if you have never seen A Few Good Men, you’ve got some form of Jack lurking around within you. Feeding off of the buffet of you. It’s time to cut him off. Take down that All You Can Eat sign and close down the kitchen. Life’s too short to have such a bad adviser leading the way.
You can handle the truth. Tell it to him. Tell it to yourself. The time for “I don’t want to’s” has passed, don’t you think?
“In the shadow of life, truth will shine” Candida Performa @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Previously published in all or part by Dangerous Harvests October 15, 2009. Published with permission.
Photo of Jack Nicholson, from the film A Few Good Men