Sunday, December 9, 2007

Is Honesty the Best Policy?

When I was five years old, I was accused of stealing my sister’s money. Nobody would believe that I didn’t do it, in spite of my painstaking attempts to proclaim my innocence. The injustice of being accused for something I didn’t do has affected me ever since. I knew that the real truth could be known by only me and after that day, it became difficult, if not impossible, for me to lie.

Some people think that honesty is an admirable character trait, but it has only gotten me in trouble. People tell us they want us to be honest, but many times they don’t. In High School, my girlfriends would show up at a party, and ask me, “Do I look good?” If the truthful answer to the question is no, it is impossible not to lie. Telling the truth can cause someone incredible pain, so often I have to ask the question, “What is worse; telling the truth or hurting someone’s feelings?”

I have discovered that certain questions are not really questions; they are only requests for affirmation. If someone asks for a compliment, many times we have to say things that may not be truthful. I had to be able to distinguish a real question from a question that had only one answer. If a friend asked me if she looked good while she was getting dressed, I could suggest another outfit. However, if the question arose when there was nothing to do to change the situation, the answer had to be yes, regardless of the truth.

The world is filled with a variety of people. Some people we like and others, we may not like. There is no requirement to like everyone, but this does not give us the right to tell people our true feelings. I always heard, “if you don’t have something nice to say, stay silent.” Usually, that policy avoids the situation of forced lying, but not always. There are many circumstances where silence is not accepted. Silence creates uncertainty, which can make others more insecure because their own fears are used as the basis for theorizing opinions. A simple silence can be turned into an insult if other people assume that their own thoughts are being shared by the person who is silent.

Often we must have relationships with people we would like to avoid. In professional situations, people with few similarities have to work together to achieve a common goal. Remaining professional requires tact, and often the avoidance of the truth. If we are in relationships for reasons other than personal choice, we have four options when we are confronted with questions where the truth is unpleasant. We can tell the truth, which may hurt someone else’s feelings; we can lie to maintain the relationship; we can stay silent; or we can end the relationship.

Even though honesty may be admirable, hurting someone else’s feelings can be much worse than telling a lie. We can open a wound that could take years to heal. Or we can cause someone to feel extremely insecure, which can damage a person’s self-esteem. I’ve learned that the ultimate honesty must begin with ourselves. We have to be truthful about why we are involved with other people in the first place. If the relationship is required for professional reasons or because we are related by blood, honesty or ending the relationship may not be possible. We can’t quit our jobs every time we encounter someone we don’t like and we can’t join another person’s family. There are also many situations where the truth is too painful. In these relationships, silence or lying may be the only way to avoid causing pain.

The best way to minimize the need to lie is to have personal relationships only when the truth is not painful. If thoughts are continually negative about someone else, the relationship should end. Some people stay in negative relationships for all the wrong reasons. For example, a couple may stay together because the need for security or the need to provide stability for the children is greater than other needs. A relationship that is based on a foundation other than love will most likely result in pain. In a close relationship, the truth eventually comes out, even if the words are not said directly. If the truth hurts, the relationship will hurt. Lying, remaining silent, or ending relationships are options that will either fail or are avoided.

Someone once told me that you should always tell the truth because it is easier to remember. If honesty were so easy, then why do so many people lie? Do we believe that others are unable to handle the truth? What is the real motivation behind lying? Are we really lying to others, or are we lying to ourselves?

People often lie to get out of trouble. When we are younger, lies often avoid punishment. If we don’t get caught, we may believe that this tactic can work our entire lives. Yet, the people we usually hurt by lying are usually ourselves. We live with the fear of “getting caught” and once we lie to someone, we have to continue to lie or we will have to face the embarrassment of our actions and a negative reputation for being untrustworthy. Many people are unable to forgive someone after the person lies, even if it happens only once. When I first met Melissa, she emphatically proclaimed that she could never forgive someone who lied to her. If someone lied, that person was no longer a part of her life. I thought the comment was fairly harsh since most people have lied at one time or another but I knew I would never change her views. The best thing I could do was to set an example. Two months later, a mutual friend of ours blatantly lied to me. It was more important for me to forgive him for Melissa’s sake because it was the only way I could make the statement that I needed to make. In my mind, it was more important that her opinion of him remain untarnished. I noticed that her compliments about him started to change and even though I was the one hurt by the lies, I found myself defending him and offering rationalizations for his behavior. I still don’t think his reputation has been untarnished in her mind, but for me, I had to be sure to continually give him the benefit of the doubt.

People also lie because they believe that others will “like” them more if they portray a character that appears to be superior to their own self-image. I have never understood this motivation for lying. If people like us because they think we are someone we are not, then they don’t really like us at all. They only like some character we have created. If we become this character in other people’s presence, we can never know if someone likes us for who we really are.

Another motivation for lying is because we feel guilt over something we have done. If we are late for an appointment, we may make up a reason that appears to be more forgivable than our own irresponsibility. If we are unfaithful in a relationship, a lie appears to keep the relationship together. Yet, the lasting negative aspects of infidelity are the guilt and lies that follow the action. Even if we think we “have gotten away with something,” we never really do because the lies and guilt remain long after the act has occurred. In our hearts, we know that we can’t really be trusted even if our partner continues to trust us. In essence, we just can’t trust ourselves.

Some form of lying happens when we purposely avoid telling someone something that we know will affect our relationship. In the movie School Ties, Brandon Fraser did not tell his classmates he was Jewish. He never lied but he knew they could not handle the truth. When they found out about his religion, they alienated him and accused him of lying even though no lie had ever been spoken. The other students didn’t tell him their religions and no one asked about his, so how could he be accused of lying? We should not be required to tell people things that they may not be able to handle until we are sure that we can trust them with the information. I don’t tell every stranger about my non-conformist views but before developing a deeper relationship with someone, I usually let the person know who I am. I release the information fairly quickly because the rejection hurts more if I have developed an attachment to the person – and I know that it is easier to reject non-conformity than to accept it.

Sometimes people lie because they have convinced themselves of an alternate reality. The inability to see the world clearly can result in lies that are perceived to be truthful. For example, individuals may see themselves as victims of external circumstances when they are actually the ones to blame. “I can’t understand why everyone deceives me and treats me poorly,” claimed a relative. “I am always giving and everyone else is always taking. Every time I do something nice for someone, they take advantage of me.” In actuality, others do not perceive this person as giving or generous. The self-perception of “being taken advantage of” is actually a lie. This person merely has a unique set of rules that causes a skewed definition of “balance.”

Frequently, people who believe that they are givers are actually perceived as takers. They just believe that they should be given more in the first place and if those expectations aren’t realized, they feel cheated. Often these people can only see the world through their own eyes. They only see the times that another person has hurt them, without recognizing that the pain could have been provoked. They remember all the times they helped someone else and conveniently forget the reciprocation. Their perception of the truth is completely biased by their own needs and expectations.

Truth is relative to a person’s subjective experiences and a clear perception of reality is impossible if individuals aren’t first truthful with themselves. The problem is that some people can’t or won’t accept the truth about themselves. They may be afraid of looking at the truth, which causes avoidance; or they haven’t learned how to forgive themselves for acts they feel guilty about. These individuals either lie by altering the truth or they hide from their guilt by ignoring the truth. Others may measure their self-worth according to other people’s opinions, which causes them to believe that the masks they wear represent the truth. When they look in the mirror, they can only see a mirage. Some people are completely unaware of the truth. Their lying evolves from ignorance. Either because they are unable or unwilling to explore their true self, they become a number of characters, which completely adapt to external circumstances. They represent no one because they represent everyone.

Socrates believed that humankind’s highest obligation was to seek the truth. The pursuit of truth and self-knowledge formed the basis of Greek philosophy. “Knowing thyself” is a journey to depths of the soul without being afraid to discover the truth. It requires continual introspection and an ability to see the complete picture without judgment or idealism. Many people may argue that it is impossible to objectively know thyself because the analysis is conducted subjectively. How do we see ourselves without looking through our own eyes? How can we be certain that we are seeing the truth?

Objectivity could be achieved by listening to other people’s criticisms. These criticisms may be another person’s projections or they could represent the truth. Self-examination only requires that a person be open to discovering the truth. When someone hears criticism, he or she must ask, “is it possible that I am hearing is a truth that I have failed to see, or is the criticism untrue?” Honest and open introspection is the path that allows us to differentiate “fact” from fiction. We can’t think about what we would like to be or what we hope that others think about us; we have to focus only on finding the truth.

Being open to the truth means that a person can say, “If the criticism is true, I can accept it. If it is true, I can evolve by changing this particular attribute. It doesn’t mean that I am a bad person, it only means that I have found another human imperfection that requires some work.” Instead of being seen as negative, the criticism is seen as an opportunity for growth. If the goal in life is spiritual evolution, the criticism will be accepted openly. Half of the effort needed to change something is simply the acknowledgment that a particular attribute exists.

The process of introspection gives us the opportunity to learn the truth about ourselves. The result of the process is that we can tell the difference between a genuine criticism and a false accusation.

Introspection also gives us the strength to stand by ourselves. We do not need others to acknowledge our positive attributes and when we hear criticisms that are untrue, they don’t affect us. Our world does not revolve around other people’s judgments; they revolve around our own.

Even if the majority of people see us in a particular light, it does not mean that the light reflects reality. Often it reflects a common misunderstanding. For example, some people like to be alone, yet the need to be alone is often misunderstood. The majority may accuse “loners” of being unhappy and lonely because they are projecting their own feelings onto the activity. Their accusations do not make the criticism true. The only person who can accurately assess the criticism is the person who likes to be alone. Unfortunately, “loners” who are misunderstood feel lonelier around their criticizers because they stand alone with the truth that being by themselves makes them happy, rather than sad. Others won’t believe them because they could never understand how that statement could be true. Knowing thyself means that a person has the strength to ignore majority opinion when the judgments are untrue.

Telling the truth is often difficult because of other people’s reactions. For example, when we admit that we are feeling grief or sadness, others offer advice about how to recover, instead of providing compassion for the pain. “Time heals all wounds,” or “tomorrow will be a better day” are statements used to “comfort” people who suffer. Human beings need to openly express all feelings, whether they are positive or negative. Eventually, many people simply hide the truth about feeling pain because others don’t want to hear about negative emotions.

The truth is also difficult because people want to be strong during times of crisis. When parents are afraid, they hide it from their children. When friends are sad, they conceal their pain to provide the illusion that they are coping with their grief. We need to allow friends and family to share their pain without judgment. People who are suffering simply need someone to listen; they do not need advice about how to ignore or recover from pain. Being able to tell the truth requires acceptance and compassion, rather than rejection and condemnation.

Outside of the mathematical and scientific world, the “objective” truth might not exist, or if it does, we may never be able to discover it. Joseph Campbell says, “The ultimate truth cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images.” Even history is subjected to interpretation. We can report that an event took place on a certain day at a certain time and that observation may be the truth. Yet beyond the simple citing of the facts, the truth is subject to individual perception. The truth is biased by the person who tells it.

On September 11th, the United States witnessed the most devastating and catastrophic terrorist attack in world history. The truth seen through the eyes of most of the world is extremely different from the truth seen through the eyes of the terrorists. In horror and with extreme disbelief, we wonder how any human being could have planned or executed such an attack. These terrorists, on the other hand, hold a religious book in one hand and a shotgun in the other. “In the name of God” they commit an atrocity against humankind that would be severely condemned by any power in the universe. They label their heinous acts of brutality as a part of a “Holy” War. How could terrorists possibly rationalize the murder of thousands of innocent people because they disagreed with US foreign policy? The only way to understand their version of the truth is by assuming that they are insane because their subjective reality does not fit within any type of reality that we could imagine. Yet these are people who have spent their entire lives killing innocent people to support their principles, and they continually view their actions as being the same as any other war that was fought to preserve belief systems. Their version of the truth is as insane as Hitler’s “truth” about the superior race. It is a “truth” founded in darkness, hate, evil, and inconceivable weakness and insecurity.

We still wonder how any God could have allowed the terrorist massacre to occur. The problem is that the truth we see is only a piece of a much larger pie. What if the events on September 11th were needed to avoid a much larger atrocity, such as the complete annihilation of the planet? The attack united the world against terrorism. Was that unification necessary to prevent the destruction of humankind? Did an alternate time line exist that prevented this attack but allowed the release of a contagious biological weapon? Did the victims die as heroes because they saved the lives of billions? The truth of the universe may be different from the truth on earth and these types of universal truths may be completely inaccessible to us while we are alive.

Many times the truth that is known to few is not the same as the truth that is known by many. Our history books may represent a truth that fails to include information that was hidden from the public. History books report that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy. Was that the truth? Or was information withheld by our government so that acceptable lies are presented instead of a truth that could cause outrage and despair?

Truth is also affected by what we personally see, feel and hear. Many people report out-of-body experiences (OBE). These people consciously travel in another dimension. Since they have experienced the event firsthand, they know that it is real. Even if the majority tells them that they are dreaming, they know that they are not. The truth for them is clear even if no one chooses to believe it. Yet what is the truth of an OBE? Is it a type of lucid dreaming, an altered consciousness, or a spiritual journey? We may never know.

Individuals are entitled to have their own views of the truth. The truth for one person will always be different from the truth for others. People need to be open to other’s perception of the truth, with expressions of compassion instead of judgment.

We also have a responsibility to discover the truth about ourselves. When I made a personal commitment to find truth, I knew I had to start with myself. My view of the truth might not always be the same as other people’s perceptions about me and I had to be comfortable with that. How could I expect an acquaintance to understand characteristics about me that took years of introspection to understand? I have realized that I need to secure with my own perception of the truth and ultimately, I know that I have to stand strong, even if it means that I have to stand alone.

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