Perspective: Trading Truth for Compassion

Shortly after my beloved grandmother died, her three adult children (my father, my aunt, and my uncle) gathered in her kitchen once more. It was a few weeks after the funeral, and they were all feeling nostalgic.

They started reminiscing about their mother. My uncle, the youngest and most tender-hearted member of the family, said, “Remember how mom always used to take a tiny sip of our milk before she handed it to us, just to make sure it hadn't gone bad? I always thought that was so sweet and loving of her.”

My dad's eyebrows flew up. My dad is an engineer, who has always lived in a deeply rational world. He corrected his brother: “She wasn't tasting the milk to see if it had gone bad! It's just that Mom had terrible eye-hand coordination, and she always overfilled the glass. She was taking the sip so she wouldn't spill the milk as she walked over to the table from the fridge. It used to drive me crazy—why couldn't she ever just pour the right amount of milk on the first try?”

My aunt—the oldest, and the one who’d had the most emotionally complicated relationship with her mother—jumped in: “You're both wrong! She was just stealing my damn milk!”

Which Reality Is True?

This sort of story is why I find reality very hard to grasp. (It's also why I love my family.) Which one of these perspectives is the truth? The truth is—well, none of them are true, and all of them are true. My father, my uncle, my aunt—they were all wrong in their interpretation of my grandmother’s habit of sipping the milk … and they were all right too. All they could agree upon was the objective fact: My grandmother used to sip the milk before she gave it to them. But when they tried to interpret why she had always sipped the milk, they each laid their own perspective over the story—and what they each believed they saw was nothing but a reflection of their own internal reality.

This is how we all are.

All of us inhabit our own planets. Everyone invents their own world history. Every sibling grows up in a completely different family. Every couple lives inside their own marriage. Every nation lives inside their own mythology. Everyone who ever read the Bible reads and experiences it differently. Good luck trying to reconcile any of it in order to settle upon one universal truth.

What if there is no “one universal truth” about any situation?

Truth Vs. Compassion

I used to try to get to the bottom of things. I used to dig and dig in the hopes of finding the “truth” of what really happened. Now I am more at ease with the idea that there is no “bottom of things”—and that many things really happened (often, all at the same time). This is why I have given up on trying to see things clearly these days and, instead, I focus on seeing things generously.

I try to choose the most benevolent possible interpretation of “reality”—and stick with it—because I am less interested in the truth these days, and more interested in compassion.

Is that my own projection? Sure. But since we all invent our own version of the world, I would like mine to be a world of kindness—a world with plenty of sweet milk to go around for everyone.

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About the Author
Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love has been called “a generation’s instruction manual” ( Toronto Sun ). Exploding onto the scene in 2006, the bestseller famously chronicled the year Gilbert spent traveling the world after a shattering divorce. Translated into more than 30 languages, Eat, Pray, Love has sold over ten million copies worldwide. The book — “fueled by a mix of intelligence, wit, and colloquial exuberance that is close to irresistible” ( The New York Times Book Review )—catapulted its author from respected but little-recognized writer to a woman Oprah Winfrey has called a “rock star author.” Named as one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York...Read more