"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
Truth or Consequences” was a very popular game show that ran for decades on both radio and television. The game began with the clever, wise cracking host (usually Ralph Edwards or Bob Barker) asking the contestant an off-the-wall trivia question. If the contestant did not provide the correct answer (The Truth) in a timely manner (before “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded), they suffered The Consequences. This involved performing a wacky stunt designed to deliver spills, pratfalls and general hilarity. Unfortunately, these days, The Truth is often much more controversial. And The Consequences usually involve more serious matters than water balloons or pie pans filled with whipped cream.
Perhaps we should begin by trying to find something we can agree on. How about this: The sun rises in the east in the morning and sets in the west in the evening. Or how about this: Five is a larger number than two. Or try this one: Texas is a bigger state than Delaware. Uh oh, did I touch a nerve with that last one?
We all seem to be having a hard time agreeing these days. And it’s not that we just have different opinions, such as you like roast beef and I prefer chicken. We are tangling these days over the most basic matters—what is reality, what is The Truth?
These questions are important. The Truth can be hard to discern, messy, complicated and inconvenient. Sometimes it can really hurt. But the bottom line for all of us is that for the most part The Truth is really quite helpful. Especially when you are dealing with matters of life and death.
Picture this scenario: A conversation with a smart, good and decent person—an important person to you and your loved ones, someone you would trust with your life. He has some news for you, and it’s not good: “I’m really sorry to be the one to break this to you. You are not going to want to hear what I have to say. I wish there was a good way to share this news, some way to make it all easier to understand and accept. But there is no way around the truth, so I’m going to just come out with it… You have cancer. And I’m afraid it’s serious. You could die from it. You have had it for some time, and it is getting worse with each passing day.
“I know this is scary news and that it’s hard to swallow all at once. We all know about cancer, of course, but I’m guessing you never really thought it could happen to you. But it has.
“You might find it hard to believe me because nothing really seems to be that wrong. You’ve been going to work like always, you play golf on weekends, you have dinner with your wife—you enjoy all the same things that you always have. But perhaps you have noticed a few little things—small changes popping up—like getting winded occasionally or maybe you haven’t had quite as much pep as usual. You have occasionally experienced some odd aches and pains, but you figured it was to be expected from a guy your age. Plus you’ve had a lot of stuff on your plate, and Lord knows all the stress in today’s world can get to anybody. Your wife has been bugging you to get in for a physical, but you kept putting it off. Why go looking for trouble, right? Why pee in a cup and pay the added expense for an office visit just to hear the doctor tell you that things will be fine if you just take a little better care of yourself?
“Sorry, friend, this time it’s cancer. Really. I don’t mean to be a broken record and a spoil sport, but you need to face it.”
News like that is scary stuff. Nobody wants to hear it. Oncologists, the doctors who frequently have to deliver this kind of bad news, report a wide variety of reactions from their patients.
Some folks go into shock. “Okay, thanks a lot, Doc. I better get going. There’s gonna be a couple of real good garage sales in my neighborhood this morning. Thanks for the visit.”
Other folks question the results. “There must be some mistake. Are you sure the lab didn’t mix up the tests? I feel fine, no way I’m sick.”
Some folks even get mad or question the doctor’s motives. “I suppose now you’re gonna try to sell me some expensive drugs.”
Fortunately, most people eventually have a calm, reasonable discussion with their doctor about their diagnosis and how to best deal with it. This is important because in many instances facing the facts and taking effective action can save lives. In the case of cancer oftentimes proper care and treatment can lead to a full recovery.
The doctor’s office is not the only place where lives can hang in the balance. There is no shortage of things needing a serious fix. The Truth can show up all over the place, and one way or another, like it or not, it’s coming to call. So isn’t it high time we wake up, smell the coffee and get to work?
This gets us back to our hard time agreeing on The Truth problem. One man’s truth is another man’s baloney. But the real kicker is this: not only do we disagree over what is in fact The Truth, we cannot even agree on how to go about looking for it and what it will look like when we find it. What is a reasonable, sensible and credible procedure to use when searching for The Truth? What criteria shall we humans use to decide what is True and Real?
Even if we can’t say for sure, in most cases The Truth is indeed out there. Either there is life on other planets (E.T. phone home) or there isn’t. Either five is a larger number than two or it isn’t. Either President Kennedy was shot by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald or he wasn’t. If flying saucers were to land on the lawn at the White House and little green men stepped out, even the most skeptical doubters would probably come to believe in life on other planets (assuming they didn’t write it off as a hoax being staged on a phony movie set and broadcast over TV to fool the gullible citizens of the world). So if The Truth is out there, how do we find it?
Some folks choose to pray for their answers. Others want to do scientific research. Some say all we need is love. And, of course, some folks want to keep the truth hidden because they can make more money with lies and deception. I’ll be straight with you—I tend to favor the scientific approach, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.
But I hope everyone might agree that we are more likely to do well as a species if we can find The Truth and agree on it. With that premise in mind, I would like offer a few possible guidelines for how we go about looking.
I don’t think a successful process will involve yelling, screaming or name-calling. We are probably more likely to find something out by listening rather than squawking. We might also rule out fighting or being rude, bullying or hurtful. I don’t have a problem with enthusiasm, passion or even gutsiness, but when you get down to the final analysis, we are all playing on the same team. Either we all win or we all lose. We can push each other to do and be better, but cooperation, collaboration and just plain civility will aid in our efforts, not to mention they might help the job not be so downright unpleasant.
Searching for The Truth should try to involve everybody, but let’s be sure to include some smart people. Lately it seems that some folks hold a dim view on people being too darned smart. But I’ve got to tell you, when I needed knee surgery, I wanted a guy who had done well in school. Please note: smart does not mean know-it-all. The smart people I know are humble, open-minded and realize they don’t know everything.
I realize there are other positive human attributes. I am glad we have people who are brave, compassionate, moral and even funny. We are going to need those folks, too. But if we hope to have any chance at unraveling the great universal mysteries, we are going to need some folks who can put two and two together. And while we are recruiting smart people to our cause, let’s try to make sure that we get the ones who are honest.
While we are searching, we need to be patient and careful. After all, we are wasting our time if we get in too big a hurry and come up with the wrong answers. But like our previous fictional cancer patient scenario, time is of the essence. There’s no time for quibbling over movie rights, book deals or who gets their picture in the paper. Not only do we need to figure out The Truth, but also we need to figure it out before it’s too late.
So, The Truth is out there. It’s not waiting for anything. It doesn’t belong to any political party. It doesn’t have an agenda. It’s not concerned about spin, popularity, polls or timing. Whatever the impact on our lives, it’s not meant to be personal.
Come to think of it, The Truth is a lot like the quirky old geezer who lives in the small house down at the end of your street. Seems like he’s been around forever. He dresses in funny old clothes, and you have heard lots of gossip and rumors. The neighbors all have their stories and opinions, but no one seems to know the whole picture. He gets around with a cane and frequently shows up unannounced without bothering to call ahead. On occasion you might find him sitting asleep on your front porch swing when you get home from work. You’re not sure whether to wake him up or to just carefully tuck a blanket around him so he doesn’t get cold. He’s not a big talker, but you have discovered that if he decides to speak up, if you know what’s good for you, you had better pay close attention.
Just now, it seems like the old man has gone missing. Looking out, there are dark storm clouds gathering, and I think we need to organize a search party. We need to find him and bring him back home where he belongs.