Fact checking

Fact checking

I’ve been doing this Hinterland thing for five months now. (Let’s all mark our calendars for the inevitable breakdown that will occur when we arrive at the six month mark and I freak out about not achieving every goal I’ve ever had in life. It’ll be fun!) Whenever I run into someone who knows a bit about what I’m up to these days, they ask, “So, are you enjoying that?” And to almost everyone, I offer the same response: “Kind of!”

I’m not jumping up and down about it. I’m not walking around in sackcloth and ashes. I’m in the in-between—the vast and seemingly infinite stretch between two shores. You push off from one shore with enthusiasm and determination and arrive at the next with joy and celebration, but in-between, there is whole lot of open water. And open water is a great place to lose perspective on just about everything.

I don’t have any magical answers that will transform the open water into something it isn’t, but I can tell you about something incredibly helpful that also sounds incredibly boring: Fact checking.

Fact checking is a thing I unintentionally started doing one morning in February. I was annoyed that I hadn’t gotten more done and I could feel an impending avalanche of shoulder tension coming on, so I decided to make a list of what I had actually done so far that day to see where all the time had gone.

I was surprised to find that I was not, in fact, completely irresponsible, and that I was, in fact, having the type of morning I want to have all the time. I woke up early to read. I did a short workout and made a breakfast I really loved. I spent some time praying and spent some time thinking. I arrived at helpful conclusions. I took pictures of the sunlight streaming in through the windows. I lit a candle and enjoyed hot coffee.

…and it was only 9am.

If fact checking had a theme song, it would be that one from the 90s by Soul II Soul: “Back to life, back to reality.” It’s a perspective switch back to what is actually happening: not what we wish would have happened in the past, not what we hope will or will not happen in the future, not the sneaky, subtle assumptions we make about ourselves and our circumstances. Fact checking is the full stop that puts the brakes on the crazy train of internal dialogue and brings life back to the present.

And you can try it for yourself for the low, low price of two questions!

1. What is actually happening right now?

This is the first layer of fact checking. It’s what changes “the sky is falling” to “I’m making a salad.” The goal is to look around and find the facts. You’re replying to an email. You’re sitting outside. You’re walking into a grocery store. This is a very basic assessment. But when you ask the question and start listing out the answers, you might be surprised to discover all of the things that went unnoticed mere seconds before: you have a computer, you have a job, a bird is singing, you have food to eat for lunch, your socks are comfy, the sun feels warm, the breeze smells like spring. The list can go on for as long as you want it to.

2. What is actually true?

This is the second layer of fact checking. It’s the real story behind the blanket statement. As per the aforementioned morning when fact checking came into being, the second layer turns “I’m unproductive” into “I’m reprioritizing what’s important. And also it’s only 9am.” Left to our own devices, we can make up the craziest stories and sell them to ourselves as truths. The truth in my head often looks like a GIF of Paul Revere shouting “The British are coming! The British are coming!” over and over and over again. When I stop to ask, “What is actually true?” I find that it is not 1775 and that nothing is actually wrong. The truth in real life is often much, much more gracious (and… true) than the story I’ve created in my mind.

Disclaimer 1: This practice might not make you happier, at least not in the “Wow, I feel so much better I could break into song!” sort of way. There are days when I fact check and still feel like Eeyore. Like that one time a few days ago when I tried to write this post and it ended up sounding more or less like an oven manual. It was stunningly dull because I felt stunningly dull. Fact checking did not change that. This is not a One Thousand Gifts-style gratitude experiment.

Fact checking is more like a map. It’s a trustworthy guide when you’re lost in the fog of the in-between. When the fog is dense it can be hard to find any concrete landmarks, so you might end up making assumptions about where you are. This is almost always a bad idea because it’s almost always inaccurate. Fact checking is the map that reminds you what the landscape around you actually looks like. It might not make the fog lift, but it will help you remember where you are and where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Disclaimer 2: Sometimes fact checking is a map, and sometimes it’s a life preserver that rescues you from drowning in your own false narrative. And when that life preserver floats you safely back to the boat, it might be a good time to look at yourself and say, “Let’s not do that again. Enough is enough. Stop being ridiculous. Because the only reason you were out there in the first place was because you told yourself a story about drowning and jumped overboard to prove it.”

I’m all for being kind to yourself, but sometimes the kindest thing you can do is tell yourself the truth. And, at least for me, sometimes the truth I need to hear most is that I’m being ridiculous, and that it’s time to stop.

Here’s where we’ll end for today: I’m still in the in-between, still in the “kind of!” phase of enjoying Hinterland. I don’t think that’s wrong, but I don’t think it’s helping, either. So I think I have a decision to make. I either need to get in the habit of believing my own story about how things are going—which sounds terrifying but also sounds exactly like what I’ve been doing by default—or I need to get in the habit of fact checking the heck out of everything to look for the truth.

Clearly, there is only one option that doesn’t end in me drowning in a pool of my own fake news, and that option is fact checking.

You’re officially evicted, Paul Revere.

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