From Ryan Holiday’s amazing and wonderful book The Daily Stoic.
Thanks Adam for the email exchange and for sending this to me today.
I watched HBO’s Chernobyl the past few nights. I finished it last night, took a deep breath, and said out loud to myself, “that was spectacular.”
One of the final quotes that stuck with me is the title of this post. The full quote is “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
Read it again. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Pause and ponder it. Think about our current world. Let the line linger a bit in your mind.
Now, watch the following ten-minute video for the comparison of Chernobyl to real historical footage. It’s incredibly powerful to watch this after you’ve watched Chernobyl, but might be even more powerful to watch it prior to watching the miniseries, which some are calling a docudrama. While some struggle with the dynamics of a docudrama and others view the techniques of Hollywood as similar to Soviet propaganda, the video below explains things well.
I was an undergraduate at MIT when Chernobyl happened. I remember reading the newspaper headlines from the Boston Globe on a daily basis (something I did most days in college at breakfast.) I didn’t have a TV and rarely went to the TV room in the basement of our fraternity to watch TV, partly because I didn’t really like TV and partly because I didn’t like the mess and smell of the TV room.
I remember being terrified almost every day as the news unfolded. The potential for nuclear war with Russia was a central theme for me growing up, especially during the Reagan years (1981 – 1989) as I went from teenager to young adult. Near the end of this period, Chernobyl was a different kind of terror – that of what was perceived by me, as an American, as a country (USSR) that had no control over planet destroying technology and was both unwilling to be clear about the reality of the situation as well as ask for help.
While some may refer to this as a small part of our planet, it’s a dead part of our planet. Uninhabitable by humans. Sure, there may be uses for this territory, like power generating solar farms, which may serve as a backward-looking justification for how this part of our planet ends up being used. And it’s fascinatingly become a refuge for wildlife 33 years later.
While articles explain in detail Why HBO’s “Chernobyl” Gets Nuclear So Wrong, I think this line of thinking misses the idea that if a few heroic figures hadn’t made the right decisions, stayed after the problem, knowing that they were likely going to die from their own exposure to radiation, while also compelling many others to end up being exposed to extreme radiation in the crisis, containment, and cleanup effort, we might not have a planet. There’s a key moment in Chernobyl (I think in Episode 4), where it’s clear that there is now an unsolvable problem unless thousands of people are mobilized to do a set of time-sensitive and highly dangerous maneuvers to prevent a total meltdown and subsequent explosion of the other three nuclear plants in the facility. The outcome of that could have possibly been the end of our planet, civilization, and human life.
While that didn’t happen, it’s a reminder of the human ability to both create and destroy on a massive scale. It’s then presented against the backdrop of the quote: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
We live in a world of endless lies. It’s not just propaganda and misinformation designed to obfuscate and distract. It’s not just things being labels “fake news” whether they are or aren’t. It’s not just in government and politics, but in business, science, philosophy, relationships, and every other aspect of life. It’s just part of what humans do.
Everyone lies, whether it’s deliberate falsehoods, obfuscation, errors of omission, misdirection, denial, or a long list of other reasons or explanations of why people lie. The person who says, “I’ve never lied” is lying, even if they are a fair witness.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
The next time you are about to lie, or participate in a lie, consider whether you are willing to pay the debt from the lie in the future.
A friend from a long time ago, who I hadn’t heard from in a while, sent me an email with a wonderful nugget in it.
I just got back from Oahu and had an interesting experience on Waikiki Beach. My son and I were boogie boarding and there were several people taking surfing lessons out in the waves with instructors. As the intrepid beginners got up on their boards and surfed one of their first waves, the instructors would invariably be shouting directives to them.
One of them was, “Direction you look is the direction you go!”
I was wrestling with this last night at life dinner with Amy. I am still Nev’s spell, so my brain only partially belongs to me right now. We were talking about where we were going, both literally (as in “should we do an upcoming trip next week”) but more importantly, figuratively.
Our best life dinners are the ones where we talk about the direction we are heading in, why we are heading there, and if we want to head there. We generally get a little time each month on the first day of the month to discuss this; last night it consumed almost all of the conversation, at least when I wasn’t sneezing.
While this conversation is often fun, it’s occasionally difficult. Last night was a mix, as I realized there
Anyone who plays sports knows this metaphor well. But it’s equally as good as a metaphor for one’s professional and personal life.
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
it was beautiful
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings –
five feet apart – and the grabbing
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow –
And then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes,
to lurk there,
like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows –
so I thought:
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us –
as soft as feathers –
that we are instantly weary
of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,
not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river
that is without the least dapple or shadow –
that is nothing but light – scalding, aortal light –
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
By Mary Oliver, From House of Light copyright © 1990, Beacon Press
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves”
“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
While some poetry ends, the poems last forever.
The following post is the one I was referring to when I wrote The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote. After I wrote it, I searched around for the quote but came across links to a speech by Ben Shapiro titled “Truth Is A Microagression” along with a bunch of commentary about Shapiro suggesting “Facts don’t care about your feelings” and counterarguments that “Facts do care about your feelings.”
I got sucked into a rabbit hole of trying to understand the discussion, debate, and the subsequent aggressive (vitrolic?) arguments. Neither was what I was trying to say, nor did I feel like becoming part of that particular discussion. So, I chickened out and wrote the post The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote instead.
Now that I’ve sat on this post for a few weeks, I’m now fine putting it up. If you are part of the “facts care or don’t care about your feelings” discussion, that’s cool, but that’s not what this is about. So, please read it with the meaning I was trying to convey.
I love the phrase “facts have no feelings.” And, it’s important to distinguish that phase from a different quote which I don’t like and is in a completely different dimension of discussion, which is “facts don’t care about your feelings.”
Queue all the comments about living in a post-fact reality and alternative facts. Or about how facts are simply a fictional narrative that humans create about the universe. Or how facts don’t matter since whoever has the loudest megaphone can overwhelm any facts. Or, how facts actually matter in the long-run, even if they are ignored in the short-term.
Earlier this year I read Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre. It had some good stuff in it, but several of my friends who read it were turned off by McIntyre’s biases (which he acknowledges directly in the book), asserting that the biases undermined what he was saying.
Around the same time, I read James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty which I enjoyed regardless of what you think of Comey. After I wrote a blog post about it, I ended up getting a range of emails. Some were positive but others were similar to the ones I got about McIntyre’s book (although more aggressive) basically saying Comey was full of shit and not telling the truth.
One of my favorite lines in the context of business is Your Truth vs. The Truth. I use the original iPhone release as the example and two Steve Ballmer videos – one from 2007 and one from 2014 – to make the point. My punch line in the post is:
“When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.”
That leads me to “facts have no feelings” and the distinction between “truth” and “facts” in the context of business. While the two are regularly conflated, they are really different. The “alternative facts” nonsense in politics makes this point clearly. If “alternative truth” had been said instead of the famously used phrase “alternative facts”, it would have made a lot more sense. Sure, some people would have still ridiculed it, but it would have been a logical construct because there can be a difference between what one person thinks is true and what another thinks is true.
Here’s a provocative example. I think bitcoin has no fundamental value. However, there are many people who believe bitcoin has fundamental value. And, regardless of whether or not it has fundamental value, it is a fact that when I wrote this sentence you can buy bitcoin for $3,403.48 (of course, it is also likely that when you read this, the price will be different.) So, people ascribe value to bitcoin, whether or not it has fundamental value.
My truth would be that bitcoin has no fundamental value, but is a highly speculative object that people like to trade. And, I build a set of truths around that. Other people have a different truth about bitcoin. Regardless, the fact is that a bitcoin can be bought and sold. And, for the avoidance of doubt, even though I think bitcoin has no fundamental value, I own some bitcoins (a fact …) Finally, while someone could extrapolate the notion that I don’t think cryptocurrencies have fundamental value, that would be incorrect, since bitcoin is simply one cryptocurrency.
Here’s something to chew on: “Should facts get in the way of truth?” Or, “Should truth get in the way of facts?”
Your truth (or my truth) and deeply held beliefs are complicated things that can change. But, facts have no feelings.
At the end of another intense year, after two weeks fighting a difficult cold, surrounded by snow, light, and quiet, this poem by John O’Donohue made its way to the surface, sent to me by my beloved soulmate. Happy new year.
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.