Truth and Leaving
According to World of Proverbs, the Slovenians have this saying: “Speak the truth, then leave immediately after.” If I had heard that proverb when I was young, perhaps I wouldn’t have lost a loyal and kind friend when I was fifteen. For my birthday that year, she had given me a book by Albert Camus. For those who don’t know Camus, he was a brooding, thoughtful, absurdist author who wrote about meaning, purpose, death, and life.
I didn’t read the book. I didn’t want to read it. Not because it was dark or philosophical, but because it was nonfiction. At the time, I only read myths, stories, novels, and plays.
A month later, when my friend asked me how I’d liked the book, I didn’t know what to say. My mother had taught me to tell the truth, so I didn’t want to lie, but I was socially awkward and tended to hurt people’s feelings without meaning to. I hesitated, and then, for some reason, told her not only that I hadn’t read the book, but also the reason why, that I didn’t like nonfiction.
Memories are funny things. I remember the look on her face, along with the realization that I’d made a mistake, but I don’t recall what she said or did afterwards. I doubt my comment ended our relationship. She had forgiven other gaffes. But I believe it was a kind of last straw.
Just Being Honest
Honesty is a funny thing. I’ve heard people use the term to excuse every crass, unkind, or judgmental statement that comes out of their mouths. “I’m just being honest.” When we make such excuses, we are often confusing opinion with truth.
Opinion is when we blurt out, “That was a dumb thing to say,” or we tell our friend, “Your new haircut makes you look like a little kid,” or “Your singing sounds terrible,” or even something we think is uplifting such as, “What a beautiful picture. You’re so talented.”
Whether we’re criticizing or praising someone, when we offer an opinion as if it’s a fact, we discount the other person. We minimize him. Lost in the thoughts and emotions that stir within us, we see the other as if in mirror, and yet we don’t even notice what’s happening. Caught up in our internal whirlwind, we don’t pay attention to the person in front of us.
This is not honesty; this is mindlessness. Honesty is something deeper and more rigorous.
The rigor in rigorous honesty refers to internal reflection and introspection. What do I feel? What am I thinking? Can I simply observe, without interpretation, what is going on inside me? Can I see clearly what is going on in the other person? What is influencing my perception of the situation? Then, before speaking, we consider whether or not we need to share any of that information, and if so, how to do it without being judgmental. This may seem like a lot to process, but our brains are miraculously quick, and with practice, it becomes part of our lives. Natural. Almost instinctual.
So how do we offer “opinions” without damaging relationships?
Let’s use as an example the statement above about the “dumb” friend. Let’s imagine we are walking with this friend when we meet two acquaintances and chat for a while. Soon, we two part company with the others and continue walking. Our friend, having said something during that interaction that has embarrassed him, tells us about it, asking for feedback.
“Tell me what you really think,” he says, “I can take it.”
Opinion Versus Observation
As a chaplain, I am sometimes asked by patients for opinions about them, about religion, about God. At such moments, I find it most helpful to first ask questions that may, if offered skillfully, enable the individual to find his or her own answers. If the person really wants to know what I think, I offer some observations. I might start with what I notice about her, perhaps repeating statements she has made or reminding her of emotions she has revealed. I might point out challenges the person seems to face, and I will certainly lift up what she has done well.
This is not the broad, “Oh, you’re so creative, or such a nice person” kind of praise. Rather, it is the specific, “You told me how you used to hide in your room, but now you are comfortable in the milieu, and you gave me three examples of times you took risks, even when you were scared.” When we do this, we show that we see the person, which all by itself goes a long way toward helping them feel competent, valuable, and real.
We can also make observations about our own thoughts and feelings. In response to our friend who wants to know if he was stupid, we might first pause and consider how we’d felt at the time. When we do that, we might notice we had been surprised by what our friend’s comment, so we could share that.
“I was surprised you said that. I wondered what was going on for you.”
This is much more true than, “That was a dumb thing to say.”
Noticing and Wondering
Wondering allows our friend to figure out his thoughts, his feelings, and draw his own conclusions. When we judge him, on the other hand, we force him to choose between defending himself and ignoring our statement, unless he’s going to simply take it in and feel ashamed with no idea how to do better next time.
Does observation take more time than opinionating? Yes. Would we feel awkward saying something like that? Maybe. Is it always appropriate? Probably not. Sometimes the question really isn’t that important, the opinion doesn’t matter all that much. Sometimes it might make sense to say what we think and let the other person deal with her feelings about it. And sometimes the best response to a question is another question.
Rigorous Honest Is for Us
Rigorous honesty, though, isn’t only for the other person. It’s also for us. When we take the time to notice, to explore our own thoughts and feelings, and when we pause before speaking, we grow. We affirm our recovery.
So what about my friend’s gift? How should I have responded to her?
I don’t have the “right” answer. Maybe I should have said, “I really enjoyed it. Thank you,” because her question wasn’t that important.
Once we tell an outright lie, however, we risk having to continue lying. What if, for instance, my friend had asked if I’d read the book not because she wanted to know if I cared about her gift, but because she wanted to discuss the book with me? If I claimed to have read it, she’d have asked me questions I couldn’t have answered. Then the hurt in her would have been even deeper.
The hurt to my inner being would have been deep, as well.
Doing the Right Thing
There once was an abbot who was ready to retire. The monastery had fallen on hard times, and he was getting tired. He was also worried about money. So he came up with a plan. He told the monks he needed them to go into the village and steal food and supplies because they could no longer buy them. They must be careful, however, that they did not get caught.
Although confused by this, most of the monks went out to do the abbot’s bidding, for he was, after all, their leader. One of them, however, refused.
When the monks returned, not very unsuccessfully, the abbot asked the lone monk why he had not gone out with the others to take what he could. After all, no one would know.
“Yes, someone would know,” said the monk. “I would know.”
As you probably figured out, this was a test. The abbot affirmed the honesty of the one monk and chose him to be abbot in when he retired.
Rigorous honesty demands that we behave with integrity not just when we know we won’t get caught, but because it is the right thing to do.
Being rigorously honest might take more time that tossing out the first sentence that comes to our mind. Rigorous honesty might not seem as smart or funny as sarcasm, and it might feel awkward, at least at first. Yet seeking to speak truth rather opinion forces us to become our best selves and, in this way, supports our recovery.
Answering My Friend
If I had been rigorously honest, what would I have said to my friend?
Maybe I would have said, “Thank you for the book, it means a lot to me.” This would have been true.That she gave me a gift at all touched me deeply. Indeed, I still have the book, because I treasure where it came from.
If I thought I needed to directly answer her question, I could have said, “I regret that I haven’t read it yet,” because in that moment, I was definitely feeling regretful.
On the other hand, maybe I could just have said a simple, “No.”
You see, I don’t really know why she asked me that question. I made an assumption. If I had been rigorously honest with myself in that moment, I might have realized my assumption and told a simple truth, a fact, without interpretation. Then I might have discovered what she really wanted, which would help me know how to respond next.
Honesty and Culture
Rigorous honesty demands that we be willing to look at ourselves. It demands that we speak clearly, that we don’t use sarcasm or obscurity to hide our feelings or thoughts. Rigorous honesty isn’t easy, and sometimes we might decide it’s not worth it.
In some social circles and cultures, however, honesty, whether rigorous or not, is unfathomable and rude. White lies are the norm, and people use complicated ways to express those lies so everyone can save face in the moment, while at the same knowing what the speaker really means.
That’s not my culture. From my place as a middle-class white woman in the Northwestern United States, I may not have the right to judge communities where dishonesty is more usual. There is value in knowing how to lie smoothly, to flatter and schmooze. After all, people with privilege and social standing have less need to lie than do those who lack power, status, and wealth. Indeed, some people say whatever’s on their mind, especially if it’s rude and obnoxious, because by doing so they prove they are powerful.
Honesty and Wholeness
Or so they seem to think. Their bravado often covers up an inflated sense of their own value and intelligence, or it hides fear, uncertainty, and loneliness. The brazenly “honest” person may not even realize he’s afraid. Ultimately, she may not have a clue who she really is.
Lying and flattering, judging and criticizing, may be important skills in certain situations. Yet if we want close relationships, and if we want a joyful recovery, most of the time we will want to cultivate an honesty that is rigorous not just in its truth-telling. We will also want to cultivate a rigorous honesty that looks inward, at our own heart and mind, an honesty that helps us understand our true self.
Rigorous honesty is not easy. It demands fearless introspection, kindness, and commitment. Yet it rewards us, as well, with love, peace, and wholeness of recovery.
In faith and fondness,
Photo Credit: by Carlos Alberto Gómez Iñiguez from Unsplash
Copyright © 2016 Barbara E. Stevens