06/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why You Can't Handle the Truth

We have so many dimensions to 'who we are' that it takes more than one lifetime to discover them (by that I mean that our children, grandchildren, etc. carry genes and culture we 'pass down'). Thoreau said, "Direct your eyesight inward and you will find a 1,000 regions in your mind yet undiscovered." How right he is, but I think a thousand regions is an understatement.

In a single life, we develop relationships to ourselves, others, the planet, and universe at large that change dramatically over time. Remember how you related to the world at age 5 years, 17 years, and then 25, 35, etc.? The level of ignorance we may see today for our thoughts, feelings, and actions of the past may seem startlingly large; perhaps the more aware we are now, the greater the ignorance of our past.

Wisdom arises when both ignorance and awareness are realized as part of the whole you. Like the coin analogy I have used before, seeing both sides of a coin (heads and tails) means the coin is moving forward (on its edge). The 1000 regions in our minds may refer to the 1000+ ways we are each ignorant and aware throughout our lives. Ignorance and awareness play out over and over throughout our lives. And, just when you think you are most 'aware', you are slammed in the face with your ignorance!

We can see it in every aspect of life from how you relate to your 'self' (suddenly discovering how full of pride or anger you might be) or others (for example, last week I realized 10 weeks had gone by without my visiting a sick friend caught up in the 'busyness' of my own life). When that awareness and ignorance applies to your relationship with the universe at large (and your place in it), there are moments of intense knowing, blindness, and discovery. These experiences may lead one to identify with particular groups who share common experiences and interpretations of those experiences, providing the community of many religious and secular organizations.

Perhaps the best means of coping with these varying experiences of awareness and ignorance - from the many levels of their expression - is to recognize that we all have difficulty with realizing our 'ignorance' at times, we all have times when we can't 'handle the truth'. Nicholson delivered that line "you can't handle the truth" in a way that makes it easy for me to remember. I can't handle the truth of my own ignorance at times, despite how much I might like to do so. I can usually handle it later - when I have had time to separate from it, reflect upon it, realize that I am 'human' and make mistakes, and forgive myself again (and again).

Part of my ability to handle the truth, to see my moments of ignorance, pride, greed, etc. is to remind myself of my many parts, of my 1000+ regions, and of my many moments of awareness and kindness, parts where I do remember to care for a friend, set expectations in advance, help and heal myself and others. We are all a constellation of 'good' and 'evil', 'ignorance' and 'awareness', without one side of the coin, we can't have the other. With age, we can usually learn to handle the 'dark' side if you will - not by avoiding, ignoring, or pretending it doesn't exist - but by seeing it for what it is, accepting it as part of our human nature, trusting that we 'can handle the truth', and finding ways to discover it.

James Carse in his new book, The Religious Case against Belief, writes of various types of ignorance differing in the degree of effort present with each. As the flip side of ignorance is awareness, it also comes with various shades of effort. It does take effort to direct my eyesight inward and see the 1000+ regions of mind (good and evil) and to realize that perhaps the greatest purpose in life is the discovery process.