Give me a living truth that will not unravel.
After a seven-year relationship, I still remember that my ex-lover, while in bed one green morning, boasted about his French toast making skills and promised to make me some incredible French toast at a later date. This sounded wonderful, caring.
Our exclusivity was not yet established, and considering that the other man I’d been sleeping with at the time had transitioned from walking me to my car in the morning, to asking me to leave early in the morning, to asking me to not stay the night, the French toast was a balefire of promise. Little daydreams like this chimera of a breakfast lent a buoyancy and endurance to our time together.
The French toast never happened.
What does a writer do when she can’t let go of the French toast? When the French toast has become an irrational encumbrance to clear thought, an albatross of sorts? When she must then consult those that have come before, the sages and oracles or at least the bawdy confessors?
She reads books.
The AWP book fair this year in Minneapolis sated many of my vague yearnings. Booths upon booths of books created a gluttonous display, a sort of melancholy Christmas, a kind of trick-or-treating unbridled except by the size of my luggage. On a white background I saw the enormous word LOVE, so big only two letters fit on each line:
The serif font was in a liminal color: perhaps poppy, orange-red, pink-orange, pink, or salmon? In a much smaller font followed: “and Lies.”
Clancy Martin, in his book Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love, gives an overview of some philosophical perspectives on deceit and truth. In The Republic, Plato endorses the paternalistic idea of the “noble lie.” In contrast, Kant says it is always wrong to lie, because there is nothing worse we can do than prevent a person from exercising her morality. To act morally is to act freely, which means one’s choices must be free, based on reasons that have been arrived at freely (not through deception or coercion).
Bonhoeffer posits the idea of the “living truth,” acknowledging we often mean something different than we say, that the living truth we impart may be more important than the literal truth that cannot be fully known. Buddhism encourages right speech, which does not necessarily equate to total honesty. Right speech is skillful speech, where avoiding or mitigating harm may take precedence over naked honesty. Confucianism holds the virtues of harmony and filial piety above literal truth telling.
I promise it was not only the French toast, but once I felt deceived, I felt driven to make meaning of my past, of the promises, of the negotiations, to answer questions of why and how. These philosophers provide some constructive names for things.
Once you have cohabitation and tangled finances, it seems silly to say, “Hey, I’m really hurt you never made me French toast.” Or does it?
Perhaps Bonhoeffer would say the intention to make the French toast imparted a living truth, the emotion felt in the moment. The idea of the French toast — however ambitious — could not be faulted, nor could the man be faulted for this act of sincere imagination.
The problem began when the idea of the French toast also became an act of imagination for me. In my creative process it became a thing that I assigned meaning and value. I will admit that the object here is a trifle, but the concept is not.
We all take things — words, promises, desires, gestures, silences — and assign them meaning and value in our imaginations. We create meaning where there is none. We create meaning to create stories of us. We create meaning to create new dreams.
New dreams are pillars. Two things can happen to these pillars. One: They undergird our life-building, our identity-building — they hold us up. Two: Their hollowness is revealed when they crumble, as if from a quick act of black magic. The latter leads to, at best, regret for one’s imaginings. The latter often leads to cynicism.
After this relationship ended, I started thinking of all the little things I had believed, wanted to believe, that had created a cheerful picture of an exceptional partnership. It took a long time for me to realize how much of life could simply be talk, not truth. Fantasy and reverie, not reality. But, I had been in love.
I now believe love is largely an act of imagination, a creative process: of building meaning, imagining a relationship, and placing it into an abstract realm outside of any literal facts. It’s contemplation. It’s a bestowal of value, a bestowal of value so creatively woven from strands of daydreaming that it permeates all windows of the psyche. This is “true,” but again, it is not a literal truth, not a “fact.”
In my love, in my falling in love, a string of promises, beliefs, and ambitions wove together, to elevate the idea of our partnership in my imagination. This is to be in love. Martin’s book has helped me understand how good people deceive, and even how we can deceive ourselves — how we can create representations and narratives which are essentially lies, but somehow form our identity and become a type of truth. A bulk of this book emphasizes erotic love, specifically, because that’s where Martin’s personal stumbles and introspection focus — on his relationships.
My personal way of expressing this type of love is to be honest to a fault and make myself thoroughly vulnerable. I don’t understand how to hold back in relationships, how to deceive for a larger end design. I don’t know how to strategize. I don’t know how to not say “I love you,” if that’s what I feel. I don’t know how to be or seem like anything other than what I am. Martin would probably say that I am deceiving myself.
At the very least, I don’t know how to be super skeptical of the one I love. So, I listen and trust and weave odds and ends, creatively, into my imagined meaning. When I assessed my ex as a suitor, I made judgments about a lot of things. I then reflexively assigned each of these things meaning, value.
I asked if he had a car payment.
He said his car was paid off. This was a litmus test for me, a test of dependability. Short of asking for a credit report, knowing a man had paid off a car in three years was a pretty decent metric, and an overwhelming factor in my decision making. I attempted to apply this information rationally, to tell myself it would be safe to try and build a life together.
It was a lie. In truth, he had defaulted on the loan, and there was a lien on the car.
So, Bonhoeffer can claim the French toast as a romantic living truth, but I will be Kantian in this instance. I will hold fast to the idea that my freedom was taken from me with this initial deception. My ability to make decisions and act freely, to exercise my own morality, was taken from me. If I’d known the truth, I never would have asked him to move in with me, as once you get past all the mushy stuff like humor and charm and good sex, independence and dependability are at the top of my list for a partner.
Bonhoeffer gets breakfast, but Kant gets the Pontiac.
I want to ask my lover now: “Do you think we can be each other’s last romance?”
Yet, I want Bonhoeffer’s living truth, the truth of intention.
A rational, statistically-based response would be lacking romanticism, possibly hurtful. No one can tell the future, but in my imagination what we have, and what we can build, could be a last romance. However, it’s a risky idea, especially if one is inclined to be cautious and rational. It just doesn’t make sense to promise or predict such a thing.
But the imagination yearns. I’m tired of being cynical.
Maybe love is simply the absence of cynicism. At least, falling in love requires the absence of cynicism. People keep falling, in this way, despite the embitterment and rancor professed and possessed by various voices in our culture.
Martin remarks that vows of commitment are a paradoxical expression of freedom. Declaring a last romance is indeed such. It’s a deliberate choice, a willfulness to participate in the commitment — an expression of freedom. However, the commitment to create a new truth together is culturally perceived as a binding of freedom.
I don’t want to see my partnership, or even my other relationships that way — as a binding. I want to see all of my relationships as an expression of free choice, of intention.
So I can say to my current lover: Give me a living truth that will not unravel.