This week I overheard a five year-old advise his three year-old brother, who was pointing out favorite characters in a book.
“These are my favorites,” the younger brother said. This one and this one and that one.” He rapped his knuckles across the page. “They’re my friends.”
His brother shook his head. “Noooo, they’re not.”
“Because,” Older Brother explained. “Your friends are imaginary. They are not real.”
Silent, crestfallen Younger Brother.
Older brother continued. “Not like my friend, Shark. He is real.”
A few days later I finished reading Mockingjay, a novel in which the enemy captures a main character and distorts his positive memories into horrible ones. The truths of his family members’ deaths are skewed into memories that absolve the real enemy, and memories of a girl he loves are twisted into scenes of betrayal.
When the character is finally rescued, he no longer trusts his friends. He lunges at the girl he’d loved, trying to kill her. With doctors’ help, eventually his friends try to bring him back to himself with a game they call “Real or Not Real,” in which the character states his “memories” as they arise, checking them against others’ understanding of the facts.
“Most of the people…were killed in the fire,” he tests.
“Real,” his friend responds.
“The fire was my fault.”
And later, hoping, “You love me. Real or not real?”
I want to play! If only we all could get true answers to questions we could fire off whenever we’re in doubt of what’s real—whether another person's motivations, the tenor and strength of a relationship, memories altered by emotion or time, or inklings we aren’t sure are accurate.
If you could play the game of authenticity found, what would your questions be?
Judging from public discourse and events of the past few weeks and months, we seem to be scrambling through a fiery search for what’s real—looking for authenticity and solid ground in politics, events, relationships and inner lives.
Surveys, polls and public discourse all say we are looking for authenticity above almost everything else, at least in those we want in public office. Clearly, we're concerned about being duped. But are we any better at identifying what’s real than the characters in the stories above?
Finding the Real > Politics and Journalism
What would happen to journalism if we flipped the assumption of falsehood on its head?
I like Anderson Cooper well enough, but I’ve always bristled at his slogan, “Keeping them Honest,” pitting viewers against public figures in a collective assumption of their dishonesty before they’ve even said a word.
When I first heard it, I had just begun working for one of the most authentic people I’d ever met. A public figure fueled by heartbreak and anger at the impact of dysfunctional school systems on children’s lives, she did not hide her views, the facts about dismal student performance, or even the mistakes she made while working to make things better.
Though I never expected everyone to agree with her approach or her candid, often blunt style, I was surprised by the depth of cynicism in the snarky tones used in reporting about her. In story after story, writers assumed she was duplicitous, or at least not as real, nudge nudge, as readers were.
Though the experience made me a much more critical reader of the news, I still discover sometimes when I read autobiographies that my media-filtered impressions of the subjects have been unfair. I wonder how many more public figures are misrepresented in our floundering attempts to nail down what’s real, and how much damage these misunderstandings do to their efforts to leave things better than they were before.
The goal to shed light on truth as a journalist strikes me as a noble professional path. But journalists who limit their calling to a "gotcha game," walking into a story determined to wrestle the truth from dishonest subjects, do more to distort the truth than reveal it. Though they may break a scandal or two over time, they will not get close to the real (To be fair, here I'm not talking about Anderson Cooper, whose slogan I believe limits what he actually does).
Though I’m not so naïve to believe all government leaders have nothing to hide, I do wonder what would happen to journalism if we flipped the assumption of falsehood on its head. What if public and other leaders are actually real people trying to do the best job they can do, stumbling at times through mistakes as forgivable as our own?
I suggest journalism would elevate, above the pursuit of the inauthentic to illuminate the real that Americans are searching for.
Finding the Real in Courtrooms > Casey Anthony (or: American Public, Give the Jurors a Break)
When the not-guilty verdict was announced last week in the Casey Anthony trial, the possibility that a mother may have gotten away with killing her little girl sent our raw, pained search for the real across Twitter, Facebook and public and private debates.
Before the verdict, The Huffington Post reported that Americans were split down the middle about her guilt or innocence. After the verdict, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed 64 percent of us believe she probably killed her daughter.
I was surprised at how harshly some condemned the jurors, who did not have the luxury of weighing the color of their experiences more than the evidence presented in court.
One Facebook post countered the lambasting with “Better ten guilty men go free, then one innocent imprisoned.” I agree. While our system isn’t perfect, I’ll take it over any other, especially those in which circumstantial evidence and hunches are enough to send people to prison or death.
This became clear to me last summer, when I was one of twelve jurors who convicted a young man for carrying a gun in the District of Columbia, a crime to which he had pled “not guilty.”
The defendant was a young man with a sweet face and eyes not yet hardened or beyond reach. My heart leaned in toward him, wishing I were in a different role, meeting him as a teacher maybe, instead of as a juror meting out information presented in court from my hopeful thoughts about former students I perceived as similar in circumstances to him.
Of course, none of this mattered.
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t used the gun and hadn’t hurt anyone. It didn’t matter that if I lived in the defendant’s neighborhood and under his circumstances, I may want a gun too.
Even for just a few days, displacing these feelings, ripping them off of the facts themselves, felt unnatural, difficult, exhausting.
But the court protected the case from my pre-conceptions and inklings, and those of other jurors, some who didn’t like the prosecutor, others who weren’t as inclined to include the testimony of the white police officer against the black defendant. The colors of our past experiences piled high on the table in the jury room—and the court required that we clear them to the floor.
The night the guilty verdict was read, I went home and cried. I looked up the punishments the defendant might serve and thought about the steps he had just taken on a discouraging statistical path. I felt overwhelmed by sadness for young people I had worked with who had entered the criminal justice system while still trying to grow up—some who continue their entanglement today, others who turned instead in the direction of their dreams, and one who died a violent death in a gang shooting.
If I was this jarred after just one four-day trial with no direct victim, I cannot imagine what the jurors on murder trials go through, especially when the victim is a child.
If Casey Anthony did in fact kill Caylee, it is now between Casey and her Creator. While the public’s anger is understandable, railing against the jury or our court system is not likely to ease collective grief or our fears for children who are not safe.
Getting Good at Seeing the Real
As we strain to see the real around and within us, I expect we’ll continue to use our experiences and emotions to do it. We’ll try to pull the real from the news, conversation, and the eyes that seek our own. Sometimes we’ll be good at it…others, not so much.
Sure, there are people who authentically make it clear that they are out to harm and deceive us. And of course, we all have some slimy swampland to trudge through on our own search for the authentic, in the encounters that reveal the unattractive underbelly of personality: bad dates, unsettling meetings at work, or disappointing discoveries about people we trusted.
We will get duped a few times, and feel embarrassment or heartbreak when we are wrong. We may even show the expression of the younger brother’s crestfallen little face on our own.
But for the most part, where we sit in the gray areas of our cynicism and blog bashing, rather than starting with the assumption of falsehood, we might do better to take the approach of the younger brother in the conversation I overheard.
He may be closest to the real after all. As he said to his brother, “They’re my friends….This one and this one and that one.”