Aletheia and Finding the Unhiddenness, of Ourselves and Others
I don’t know where my obsession with “truth” comes from, and by truth I mean not only the “correctness” of something, but also the “unhiddenness” of it. Truth in the sense of “correctness,” and most likely as it relates to “justice,” was the first to arrive on the scene. Having a strong sense of right and wrong, or more accurately, having a strong dislike of the “wrong” and burning desire to be a part of any movement to make things “right” felt like my life’s purpose since I was young. I listened to musicians singing about change, marched in anti-war protests, and eventually ended up going to law school in hopes of serving those who were discriminated against in the workplace. (That never happened, by the way. Full disclosure, I became a prosecutor instead…a story for another day.)
I know that I am not alone in my quest for social justice. Having pangs of desire to pack up my bags and join the Peace Corp or some NGO helping women get safely out of the sex trade does not make me unique, but it does most likely make me a part of the minority. A quick glance at the news will illustrate how different the world might be if the majority was in fact engaged in this modus operandi. “Prosocial behavior is any behavior that is intended to benefit another person or persons (Dunfield, 2014). Examples include volunteer work, donating money, or helping a neighbor move a heavy item of furniture. The most striking type of prosocial behavior is altruism, where a person takes on a cost to help another person with no expectation or possibility of receiving a benefit in return.” We are actually born with prosocial biases. “Infants as young as six months prefer individuals who help others in distress over those who harm others or stand by while another is being harmed,” so why do we fail to take better care of one another? Why is there so much hate in the world? Why are the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? To start, our prosocial bias is either strengthened or weakened and then further shaped by our experiences and social and cultural pressures. So it turns out that the biggest barrier to prosocial behavior is actually the way in which we socialize.
“[A] large meta-analysis found that the strongest predictor of prosocial behavior is the ability to empathize with feelings and viewpoints of other people (Bierhoff, Klein, and Kramp, 1991).” We tend to favor family and social circles when it comes to prosocial behavior, so if our social circles are homogenous in terms of race, class, religion, sexual orientation/gender identity, then we have a very undeveloped sense of empathy for those who do not fall into one of “our” groups. This isn’t to cast blame on anyone finding themselves in mostly homogenous social circles, but it is highlighting a potential byproduct of that which may be inadvertently contributing to the suffering of others because they are not the benefactors of your prosocial behavior. So what to do about that?
Well, let me return from that detour and back to the title of this article and Heidegger’s (I know he’s been canceled) understanding of the word “Truth” or “Aletheia.” As the Greeks and then Heidegger understood, Aletheia (Greek for truth) is defined as the unhiddenness of beings. When I was younger, my sense of truth was anchored in correctness, however, the unhiddenness of truth is where I find myself striving today, albeit imperfectly. I have learned over the years, that standing in a position of correctness is not often going to lead me to the unhiddenness of anything. It is a closed-minded place to be. There’s no growth in a closed mind. There’s no learning. There’s no empathy. Empathy is the vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. It is stepping out of my known reality and seeking the truth of someone else’s reality. And empathy, as we know, is how we are motivated to prosocial behavior.
There’s another layer to this exploration of truth, and that’s within our own mind. Just as we learn, or don’t learn, prosocial behavior, we learn everything. Our minds are made up of layers of accumulated beliefs that are imprinted upon our neural network whether true or false. These beliefs help us to make decisions, often thousands, many split second, throughout the day. They are a requirement for evolving, but they also hold us back. It is these very beliefs that cause us to make judgements, sometimes about decisions to be made in our life, but also decisions about how to feel about another. We are continuously judging ourselves and others. It’s part of our brain’s anatomy that we cannot completely eradicate, but we can better notice when these judgements are enforcing a closed-minded position versus an open-minded position which will allow us to experience more empathy for others.
So we have both the unhiddenness of ourselves and the unhiddenness of others that in our busy lives we are at best unable to see and at worst choosing to ignore. A delving into our own unhiddenness can in turn assist us in seeing the unhiddenness of others, not through the application of judgement or correctness, but rather as has been suggested by the Dalai Lama, amongst others, through the application of doubt which leads to a search for deeper understanding. For once we’ve settled our mind on some notion of what is truth, we are set off in a very specific direction, quite possibly avoiding the opportunity to look left or right and missing information of great value or even, gasp — a greater truth.
Being a practitioner of doubt does not mean feeling incapable of doing something, of doubting oneself. It means not taking things at face value, questioning assumptions, and digging underneath the surface to ensure the accuracy of your beliefs. Where and when can we all practice more curiosity of others rather than assessing their actions through the lens of assumption, judgment or idea of “correctness?” If you’re struggling with how to cultivate greater curiosity, this article has some excellent suggestions. Bringing it back to empathy though, allowing the stories of others in to your awareness even if they are not a part of your social circles will also help you act more prosocially toward those groups you are not naturally connected to. There are countless options available to you, and research shows, even reading fictional tales of others can help.
Truth is not fixed nor is it immutable. Today more than ever, we are aware of the ever-changing essence of truth, in both senses of the definition: correctness and unhiddenness. What I might believe to be correctness in one moment could change in the next because of some newly learned information. Scientists are routinely experiencing this lesson. Similarly, what I might believe to be the truth of myself can and most certainly does change regularly as the layers come and go.
Heidegger questioned, “Are these safe promenades in the old gardens of earlier conceptions and doctrines not a comfortable avoidance of responsibility in face of the demands of the day, a diversionary spiritual luxury to which we no longer have any right (today least of all)?” Spiritual luxury? Perhaps, but if it is a path to seeing our biases, assumptions, and outdated beliefs taking us into the realm of unhiddenness so that we can see people and our own life’s experiences through a clearer and less judgmental lens, one with more empathy, then perhaps it’s a luxury we can all afford.
You can hear stories of women and conversations about healing the patriarchy on my weekly live radio show/podcast, “i want what SHE has.”