Our older dog, Mitzpah, has aged greatly during lockdown. The puppy, who does her best to provoke him, succeeds in infusing him with a few minutes of daily zest. But often he follows me round, even more than he used to, staring up with that baleful look which one can’t help thinking dogs secretly perfect in the mirror. But he’s saying something different from ‘Give me another biscuit,’ or at least that’s what I hear. He’s asking, ‘Will you still look after me, will you still love me, now I can’t make the long walks, now I’m ninety-four?’
The question of truth is, rightly, at the forefront of public debate: is everything only ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’? Are so-called ‘facts’ merely subjective, the way we choose, and try to make others choose, to see them? Or is there such a thing as empirically verifiable data which demands our respect?
But there’s another aspect of ‘truth’ which troubles me no less deeply: being true. ‘True’ in this sense translates into Hebrew not as emet, but as ne’eman, ‘faithful’; or, as my grandfather would say in German, not as wahr, but as treu. It’s how Matthew Arnold uses the word in Dover Beach:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…
Being true to one another, he felt as he listened to the retreating tide symbolising faith’s ‘long, withdrawing roar’, is all we have on this earth.
As I write, a conversation returns to my mind, still filling me ten years later with a residue of the shame I felt at the time. It was only a two-minute exchange in the street about a mutual friend: ‘He thinks you’ve forgotten him now he’s not well.’
Since then, those words have been an ear-worm in my conscience. They’re my measure of what ne’eman means: faithful, trustworthy, present through thick and thin. I meet people who’re like that; I’m aware of more of them since lockdown has brought to the fore the importance of this kind of ‘truth’: people who keep in touch with everyone they know, who try to forget no one, who treat nobody, ever, as second class.
This is what it means to be human. I recently attended a conference about friendship in different faiths. Much of it left me unmoved because in the end all the theology comes down to this: we hold each other’s humanity in trust.
It’s a responsibility and privilege which goes beyond those we know already. I’ve heard the following often this year, and I’m struck every time:
‘I think it’s a medical student, or it might be a nursing assistant, or the intensive care nurse herself: she holds her mobile phone next to my father in the ICU and lets us talk to him. Sometimes we even sing.’
It’s a truism that ‘a patient is a person, not just someone who’s sick.’ But to live that truth when you’re long past exhausted, when your personal safety may be at risk, when your heart is worn bare by witnessing suffering, and yet still to have the love – what words do justice to this?
We hold each other’s humanity in our hearts, and sometimes in our very hands. How we do so defines us. I believe God asks us all the time ‘Are you being faithful?’ These words don’t come from above. They’re not in heaven but in our family, friends, fellow beings, even in the eyes of the dog.
We had a small family dinner on the Friday night of my Bar Mitzvah (as so many families would love to be able to do now!) I remember vividly something my grandfather said about me: ‘Er ist treu’ – he never got used to speaking in English – ‘he’s true.’ What he was really telling me was: ‘Be true, because that’s what matters.’
I still hear him say those words. I paid little attention at the time, but now they fill me with an inseparable mixture of shame, inspiration and love.