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The Color of Polar Bears

I read once about a psychologist who went to study people in Siberia, to find out how Siberians think. One question went like this: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zembla (the name of a town) is in the Far North, and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?”

What would you say? To me the answer seems obvious: white. But not to the Siberians. They would say things like, “I don’t know. I’ve only ever seen black bears.”

The Siberians stuck to what they knew from their own experience—that’s what they knew for the truth. They weren’t about to trust some city slicker telling them about bears in the far north, that they had probably never seen for themselves, either.

The psychologist asked one Siberian man the polar bear question a second time, implying that he needed to think about it more. The Siberian man said, grudgingly, “To go by your words, they should all be white.” He knew what answer the psychologist wanted to hear. But he stuck to the truth he knew—what he had experienced firsthand.

“Hearsay” is the word for things you only know by hearing about them—things you don’t know from your own experience. And it seems to me that almost everything we “know” is really hearsay.

Everything you read in the paper? You’re trusting the reporter to be truthful and accurate.

Everything you see on the news? Everything that comes across your Facebook feed or your YouTube player? It’s all things other people are telling you or images they want you to see, the way they want you to see them. Not things you know for yourself, through your own direct experience.

Even science, when you get down to it, is hearsay. Whether you believe it or not will depend on how much you trust the scientists, and the people who report on the science.

I’m not saying hearsay is always false. It might very well be true, and a lot of it probably is. After all, hearsay is the only way you can go beyond your own experience to learn about the wider world, about other people’s experiences, about the past and the future. Hearsay tells you the weather will be nice tomorrow so you can plan a ride or a party. Hearsay tells you someone loves you. So you can’t go around disbelieving everything you hear.

What those Siberians knew, though, was the importance of how you know things, and why you choose to believe them or not. Which gets to personal integrity, and discernment.

When you experience something for yourself, then you know, and you know you know. Everything else needs care and consideration before you take it on board. And what you do know for yourself, I would argue, deserves utmost respect as priceless nuggets of actual truth.

So it’s an interesting thing to take five minutes to think about what you know that isn’t hearsay. What you would still say is true if you left out everything that you’ve only heard from other people or seen on a screen. If you sit down with a cup of tea and think about that for five minutes, it really brings you back to awareness of your own life and experiences. Your own perceptions and sensations. Things you’ve seen for yourself, things you really know.

There’s a great big world out there that exists beyond each person’s individual experience. It’s important to know about that world—which means working with hearsay. But understanding that that’s what you’re doing. And being aware that there’s a world of difference between hearing about a white bear, and seeing one for yourself.

But five minutes of sitting thinking about what you, yourself, know for sure can remind you what genuine truth feels like. And that’s a rare and precious feeling in today’s world.


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