What takes mental realities from thoughts to physical expression? Supposedly, “The truth changes things,” but sometimes knowledge does nothing to change our behavior. When does conviction become action?
The Three Types of Truth
“For a Christian, there are three (not two) sides to every story… relative, absolute, relational,” offers Leonard Sweet in his book Nudge. I had been waiting my whole life for someone to break truth into three parts instead of only two. Relative and absolute have never sufficiently accounted for human motivation/behavior, especially with regard to the divine. I won’t spend much time on them. Absolute and relative truth matter, but we act on relational truth. The more I have tried to define relational truth, the more definitions I have come up with. One thing is for sure: so much of the truth we live by transcends the relative and absolute.
Relative truth can be true for you but not necessarily for me. Absolute truth is true for both of us, whether we know it or not. Relational truth is what’s true between us. Relational truth blends the other two forms of truth. It’s relative: the same action or word or situation can be interpreted differently based on the listener’s perspective. It’s absolute: a sped-up heart rate (a sign of emotion) can be measured objectively.
Absolute truth: the boy was struck by a car and flew off his bicycle. Relative truth: he should have stayed at home that night. Relational truth: he was grounded and disobeyed his parents by going out.
Relational truth can also be your reaction to another type of truth—why do you care about a given fact? It’s the human interest-angle on a situation or set of numerical data. It’s the story. The why behind the what. In the example, it’s sad the boy fell off his bike, and it’s debatable from a philosophical perspective whether he should have stayed at home, but it’s interesting that he disobeyed his parents. That’s the one I would want to know more about, the one I can potentially relate to.
Living Out Relational Truth
Since each person has a relationship with oneself, any choice can have relational impact. People have avoided bad decisions by reasoning, “I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.” We’re also in relationship with other humans, with God, with animals, and even with nature.
Relational truths most affect our day-to-day actions. Knowing millions die daily of preventable causes unfortunately does not move most of us to urgent action. But if your loved one’s life were on the line, it would become desperately urgent.
It damages relationships to put principles (absolute/relative truth) before listening to/respecting others (relational truth). The way a speaker wields absolute and relative truth has a big impact on the listener’s relational truth. “That’s true for you but not for me,” is sometimes the case, but anything that affects either of us is true for our relationship, which is a third thing neither of us fully controls.
Relational truth is the reality of your experience. It’s your unique angle on the truth others can see/interact with/ignore/debate. It doesn’t need to be defended or proven; it just is what it is. The truth of whether this room is hot or cold is relative. 100 people might have 100 different perspectives. But when I tell you I feel cold, that’s the truth, and it’s not up for debate.
The Brain Chemistry of Love
Why are we likelier to act on relational truth? Because it is our brain chemistry. Relational truths either make us feel good and continue our patterns, or feel bad and try different behaviors to end our pain. Brain chemistry shapes our reality and our well-being; it is the substance of experiences like happiness and sadness.* Peace is the absence of stress/anxiety hormones, and probably the presence of other hormones I don’t know the science behind. A friend with bipolar disorder described feeling like a different person on a prior medication, which she even thinks made her more religious. Times her medication didn’t function as intended were some of the very lowest of her life.
If we believe we’re worthless (a relational truth), we struggle through our days because we’re in a bad relationship with ourselves. Feeling insulted results in a flood of stress-inducing chemicals, and believing negative things about ourselves is self-insult. I’ve heard it takes about eight hours to come back to baseline, chemically speaking, after a ten-minute argument with a loved one. It can take up to twenty-four hours after a particularly upsetting incident.
Healthy relationships create desirable brain chemistry states. Healthy touch, emotional validation, safety, positive anticipation, dopamine, oxytocin, etc. Love hugely impacts brain chemistry. Putting love in the most clinical way possible, when people create these favorable conditions we want to maximize our exposure to them.
The fuzzy romantic (or obsessive, depending on your perspective) things people say have their basis in brain chemistry. “I want to wake up next to you every morning” means, “I want to begin each day with the hit of dopamine I’ll get by seeing you.” “I can’t live without you,” means, “when we are apart I experience an addict’s craving and I hate that restlessness.” “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before,” means “I have seriously never had this much oxytocin in my blood at once.” Most new moms are flooded with snuggly feelings (chemicals) toward their new baby. This biological occurrence is experienced as relational and results in the action of caring for the baby.
Relational Truth and Faith
Why do people reject or embrace a particular religion? I think Leonard Sweet (author of the quote above) calls out Christians specifically because Christianity is predicated on the love of God, a relational truth. We can debate logic and ethics and relative merits of given belief systems, but ultimately what tips someone over the edge into this religion is the lived experience of being loved unconditionally.
People don’t give their life to Jesus because someone has convinced them on an intellectual level that Christianity is more sensible than absurd. Instead, they say things like, “You’ve convinced me, but I still don’t believe.” People have to encounter the love of Christ directly to make the leap from uncertainty to commitment. Some are skeptical as to the reality of these direct encounters because, for instance, medication can seem to result in increased religiosity. But all of life’s experiences, good and bad, are filtered through a person’s chemical state. We don’t generally discount the mental state of people who are on medication outright; if we did, there wouldn’t be much American society left (the Mayo Clinic suggests 70% of Americans take prescription drugs as of this writing). It is good for a new mother to care for her baby even if the motivation is chemical.
Love is a form of relational truth, experienced in the body but no less real or true for that. We act on that which we care about. True love moves us to action. So what takes thoughts to actions? In short, love.
*Credit for this post idea goes to the friend who shared with me her theory that brain chemistry is everything, suggesting, in effect that, what every person ultimately wants out of life is balanced brain chemistry. It’s so true!