Right when you are wrong
Sometimes you can be quite wrong and at the same time absolutely right; however in today’s digital world we seem to be so obsessed with ‘facts’ that we can find it hard to accept that many profound realities can be true without necessarily being factual.
Some years ago my wife Sue was at a London dinner party. The guests were professional, a bit yuppie bordering on the Sloane Ranger, not the sort of setting you would expect the conversation that took place. Sue was sitting next to a banker, hardly rare birds at such gatherings, of course, but there was something different about him, more interesting, more layered. He was pleasant company and spoke warmly and lovingly of his wife and how strong and supportive she was, despite ‘what he had put her through’. Far from the usual marital misdemeanours it turned out that his long-term paranoid-schizophrenia had blighted his life and her’s for years. She had married him despite his illness because she loved him and because she was brave. But having tried all the conventional psychiatric approaches they had begun to despair that he would ever find peace; for when he was in crisis he recoiled from people in terror, convinced that if he so much as looked at someone he would kill them with just the power of his gaze.
A friend advised him to visit a traditional Chinese healer, something he would never ordinarily do, for surely it was bunkum, new age twaddle? Yet we can all get to the point where anything is worth a go. On arrival the healer was kind and considerate, put him at his ease and then gave him the time to tell his story. That alone was a gift, for we all have a story to tell, but who in this busy world is willing to listen?
He told of his fatal gaze, the times when he was convinced that anyone near him was in imminent danger of their life. At the end of the conversation she took his horoscope and after consideration she gave her opinion.
In a previous life, she said, he had been a WWI sniper. Long hours peering across a wasteland through the telescopic sight of a rifle, occasionally snuffing out another soldier’s life with the merest, almost unconscious squeeze of a trigger, had left psychic scars so deep that they cascaded through the ages. The trauma had passed from life to life until now when the pain was too great, the buried memories too raw to be ignored.
He left the consulting rooms in a daze, somehow, he got home and then he slept for a day and a half. On finally waking he knew something had changed. He still didn’t believe in traditional healing, at least at a conscious, rational level, but somewhere deep inside, somewhere that looked for insight rather than cleverness, that valued wisdom rather than mere facts, the story made sense. More than that, much more than that, it worked. Somehow the fractured and wounded pieces of his psyche were glued and melded together by that story. Somehow the story made him whole even if he didn’t really believe; he felt it to be true, even if it wasn’t factual. It spoke truth to him, it was a story that connected the broken pieces, it helped him to find his way home. At the dinner party with Sue it was now over three years since his last crisis; he hoped that he might never have cause to fear again.
When Sue told this poignant story it reminded me of something else that I had learned years before, that I took for granted, used without thinking, certainly not reflecting on what it might teach us about the nature of truth.
As a yachtsman I studied celestial navigation, using a sextant and a chart to sail across endless miles of ocean, potentially with no land in sight for weeks. There is something rather wonderful about a few calculations taking you across the world, year after year, century after century with not a computer in sight.
However, celestial navigation is based on the entirely false Ptolemaic system from the days of the Pharoahs. It assumes that the sun and all the other planets revolve around the earth, that we stand at the centre of the universe. It shouldn’t work at all and yet it will get you home every time. The system has no basis in fact and yet because the sums work well enough it will consistently set you on your true path.
I often think of the man’s story, and the art of navigation. Some of the foundations of my own faith may well be factual, some of the events may have happened as described and the people much as we imagine them to be. But actually I don’t need every ‘jot and tittle’ of the Bible or the teachings of the Christian faith to be factual, every word to be ‘inerrant’, every thought to be taken literally and at face value. I just need to know that it will get me home.
Rev. Kevin O’Brien is Church of Ireland Rector based in Ennis in charge of the Drumcliffe, Kilnasoolagh, Kilfenora and Spanish Point Pastoral Areas