The virtue of honesty and the role of the receiver
“You will always get into less trouble if you tell the truth” is probably the most repeated and elaborate lie I was ever told by teachers at school. Anytime I was actually in trouble or had willfully committed a wrong that I wished to amend, telling the truth never got me into any less trouble. I remember understanding the role of a lie very young. Not the kind of little lies about if I finished all my lunch in my lunchbox (No, actually, I gave half to someone who wanted it more than their own) but the kind of lies that felt beyond my immediate grasp, too complex to use, but I knew they existed in the world of adults. And long before I knew how to lie, I knew why. People are scared of getting into trouble.
And so I watched myself learn from the world around me; that those who lie are bad or weak and wrong and those who tell the truth are virtuous and brave and right.
Jump forward to today. Right now, this evening. I caught up with a friend I haven’t spoken to for a while. We had a lot to catch up on. Despite any passing of time, we’re both safe to be direct with each other, which is always refreshing when I live in a city of “Nice to meet you!’s” and fewer “How are you?’s”. I get so nervous though, talking to people, telling people the truth to the same questions that I have wanted to be asked for so long. In the silence after we ended our conversation, I felt the lightness that comes with residing in one’s truth and being held gently accountable when I am not. I thought;
“Gosh, she is just so easy to tell the truth to”
What I think I mean, is “it’s so easy to be myself around her”. But the insertion of the word truth caused me to linger on the possible meaning. Now, this is probably the right time to tell you I lie as much as the average human being, and that the lies I imagined I would tell out of social discomfort were not malicious or obvious or earth-shattering. They were the kind that seeks to downplay telling how in love I am at the risk of being seen as teenage, admitting I don’t know things I think I should, or saying I’ve forgotten certain details when I feel like admitting I still remember them makes me embarrassed that I still remember them. It’s no longer the kind of lies associated with getting in trouble. It’s about authenticity. But somehow honest self-expression still feels a lot like telling the truth when I lost that new pair of gloves at school. Like it will still get me into trouble.
What if telling the truth doesn’t start with the teller, but with the receiver? Do people lie because those listening are so full of their own agendas that there is no space left open for an honesty they may not want to hear? Or do we hope to acknowledge the truth indirectly, because it’s too hard to process directly, so we use the rouge of a lie/exaggeration/distortion to then deduce it’s opposite?
What if we taught children not to always tell the truth, but told adults to listen for it? Honesty is vulnerability, and one must learn that not everyone is immediately safe to be vulnerable with. Vulnerability needs a safe vessel, free of judgement, full of curiosity and attention without expectation. That kind of information is not always easily determined in others. Therefore, perhaps it would cause less anxiety to raise children that don’t search for the lighthouse of safety and teach people to be safe places for vulnerability. To value it more than we value the power dynamic of playing the demi-gods that decide the consequences for a person when they tell the truth in precarious circumstances.
Perhaps honesty is like a phone call. It will call, but we only get to hear the real thing if we answer the phone and start a conversation. Leaving a message on the answering machine becomes a removed replica of the real thing. Maybe it’s even a ‘lie’ because of its degree of removal from the real moment.
If nothing can be given, or gifted or shared or confessed without a receiver, what role does the receiver play in lies? Perhaps there are no liars, only those who can be easily lied to. The space honesty demands is a space that must be held open by others. Truth by its pure nature, shouldn’t need to seduce the bouncer, pick the lock or climb through the window just to arrive at judgment or punishment.
Maybe we should not place the virtue on people who can easily tell the truth, and instead valuing those who can be easily told the truth to. In my experience, hearing the truth has always been harder than telling it.