Fact and Fiction

by Rob Colfax

I have been giving much thought lately to the concepts of “fact” and “fiction.” Actually, this is something to which I’ve given quite a lot of thought and speculation most of my life — falling, as it does, in that somewhat nebulous area between philosophy and metaphysics. This recent bout of contemplation was occasioned by someone who read something I wrote, asked if the story “really happened,” and then proceeded to become quite bothered when I declined to answer the question.

In my mind, it’s very simple: “fact” = “real”; “fiction” = “not real.” Well, at least it’s simple to begin with. After that first statement, it starts to get a little murkier. Kind of like the tranquil water of a pool that you just can’t resist stirring gently with a stick — you never know what’s going to be dredged up from the muddy bottom. The gray area lies, I think, in the definition of “real.” And here is where my logic may confound some; I do not think it is anyone’s right to define what is “real” for anyone else. In fact, I often question the need to have such a dichotomy. I am reluctant to designate one bit of writing as “truth” or “fact” while calling another (written with equal conviction) “fiction.” The word “fiction,” in many people’s minds, translates to “something you just made up.”

“Real,” to me, does not necessarily mean something that can be supported by traditional empirical evidence, or backed up by witnesses, or even pinned down to a specific time and place. “Reality,” I believe, is one of those elusive ideas that we have difficulty describing and explaining — but we know it when we see it.

And while we’re on the subject of reality, I would like to point out as well that there are schools of thought which hold that we are creating our “reality” as we go along — that every day is basically a new story that we make up, that we build our identities out of our various experiences, and that we can change the story (to some extent, at least) as we go along. If you don’t like your job, you can get another. Don’t like your car? Get a different one. Don’t like living alone? Get a roommate — or perhaps a cat. From this perspective, we are all the authors, every single day, of our own stories, which crisscross and collide with the stories of others. We are all masters of improvisational performance art, making up our scripts as we go along. Do we think, then, that just because we can see how we create a given situation, it is somehow less real? No. For the most part, we are each quite certain that what we are seeing and experiencing is the absolute truth. Even should we later discover that we had a mistaken perception or impression of something, we still accept the corrected version of the event as a reality. Fiction can become fact, and vice versa. Truth is malleable.

Still, not everyone is willing to go along with the idea that we are creating what we know as “reality.” Some prefer to think of it as some abstract (yet very concrete) thing that is “out there” — perceptible, yet somehow separate from us; surrounding us, yet impervious to the influence of our thoughts and desires.

Still others would say that thoughts and desires are a reality in their own right; if you think it, then it becomes real in some sense. A corollary to this idea is that the thought of something increases its potential of becoming an actuality. Even if it never emerges into what we think of as physical, everyday reality, the thought is still there, and the thought is real, even if what is thought about is not. (For instance, if I imagine a blue unicorn, even though I may never have seen such a creature and may not believe that they exist, the thought which contains the image of the blue unicorn most certainly exists — as well as the seed of potential — thereby increasing the possibility that there may someday, someplace, be one.)

Can any of us truly say with conviction that what I experience is real but what the other fellow experiences is not? How arrogant that would be; how egocentric, to imagine that just because an event happened to someone else and not us that it cannot possibly be as real as the event we experienced.

I have seen research scientists with opposing viewpoints argue on and on over what would appear to be an incontrovertible bit of evidence regarding one or the other’s theory — a proof that the other refused to accept and proceeded to debunk. I have seen fistfights break out between proponents of differing beliefs with not a shred of evidence to back up either point of view — nothing to support them except the strength of their respective convictions. At a weekly news publication where I once worked, I even received personal threats if I did not “stop printing such slanderous lies” regarding some unsavory ethics of a certain public personage (allegations of actions which I had witnessed firsthand). Meeting with the irate caller and explaining the basis for my statements, including tapes and photographs, did nothing to sway his belief that I was the devil incarnate, hell-bent on destroying the reputation of his sainted hero. It did, however, serve to confirm for me a belief I had long held as a sort of working hypothesis: that people will believe what they want to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary.

And so if I am disinclined, these days, to spell out what I think is “fact” and what is “fiction,” it is not out of any desire to be coy or mislead anyone. It is because I think that everyone has the right and responsibility to choose their own paradigm — to decide for themselves what they will accept as their reality. I would not deprive anyone of that choice.

© Copyright 2001, 2013 by Rob Colfax

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