People lie for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. Often people lie and justify their manipulation of the truth with the belief that they care for another person and are trying to spare their feelings from the hurt that the truth will cause.
This includes lying by omission.
And it includes ‘white lies’.
According to Sam Harris in his book Lying:
“White lies are those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing others discomfort – these are the lies that most often tempt us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.”
Harris’ book is actually an essay that can be read in a short amount of time. This is probably the main reason that you can pick it up for only two dollars on electronic book. Harris has done an excellent job of demonstrating how to benefit from being brutally—but pragmatically—honest.
For a long time I’ve believed that to lie to another person is to take away their right to make an educated decision about their life. I believe this fiercely and living by this belief often sees me doing and saying things that, I’ve learned, many wouldn’t.
Does this mean I never tell lies? No.
Not even close.
I can look back over my life and see how I’ve always had a tendency to favour a direct path toward the truth rather than skirting around it for the sake of remaining comfortable. This doesn’t mean I’m always good at it – and sometimes I’m terrible at it.
This confession might come as a surprise to many of those know me.
Going back over one of my journals from more than six years ago I can find messages I’ve received from friends:
“Believe it or not you have made a profound impact in my life. I know I generally play cool when I see you but you’ve truly made me ponder on a myriad of things about myself and in life in general. I will always be grateful for your friendship and candor! By far you are the realest and most straight forward shooter I know.”
“Thank you for being generous with your praise and compliments. I think that’s one of the many reasons why you are trusted among people. You are also a woman of her word and I don’t say this lightly. As we all know how easy it is to be talk, talk, talk but not so easy to do the walk. You remind me that actions speak louder than words.”
These were messages that were emailed to me around the time of my returning home after living overseas for more than a year. There were several other messages, and all with a similar theme emerging. I got quite nostalgic and felt blessed that people had taken the time to express how I had impacted their lives. While it’s nice to be proud of acknowledgements, what’s more important in this moment is the reason I went back to review the messages in the first place…
I was looking for evidence – A direct reaction to being questioned on my ability to hold true to the value of honesty.
I have been working with a coach with many more years experience than me and I was being questioned and I didn’t like it. That’s how it goes when you want to take your life and everything about it to a higher level; you have to review, reflect and dissect and I don’t believe it’s for the faint hearted.
Here’s what I know about being able to uphold the truth (a skill I still work on daily):
- To be truthful you have to be able to hold the mirror up to your own life. Because a commitment to truth means paying attention in each moment to what truth is.
- To be truthful, you need to have good self-esteem. This is a not negotiable. If you’re not able to take hearing the truth from someone else, then you won’t be able to say it. Without question, my ability to deliver the truth has been in direct proportion to my willingness to hear what other people have to say to me.
This doesn’t mean it is easy. A few months back, I had deliberated over a friendship (with someone we’ll call ‘John’) that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep. I deliberated because John is not a bad person. Not at all. In fact, there are many great things about John. Ultimately there was a clash of key values and what each of us liked to receive in friendship. I reluctantly answered a phone call from him. He asked me if we could meet up. I mentioned a couple of things about being quite busy with work (side note here: these things I was mentioning about being busy with work, while technically true, were really just my desire to avoid the truth creeping in). “So you’re too busy?” he asked.
RIGTHT THERE. THAT IS THE MOMENT. For me, it’s a tightening in the gut as I feel the blow that I am either going to, or not going to, deliver. Let’s be clear: I DO NOT WANT to deliver the truth in this moment.
My desire to avoid the truth and simply say “Yeah, sorry, I’ve really got too much going on right now” is overridden by my belief that ‘To lie is to take away another’s right to make educated decisions about their life’. So I said: “Yes, I do have a lot going on right now, but a more honest answer would be that I don’t want to meet up.”
It didn’t feel nice for me, and it probably felt even less pleasant for John. Here is where you want to get careful about the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’.
When I’m feeling the pain that “I believe” John is going to feel when I deliver unpleasant information, I am being sympathetic. I’m actually feeling sorry for the other person and how they will feel. I can try and convince myself that I am being a good person by sparing them from unpleasant feelings, but really:
- I am showing disrespect for the other person’s ability to navigate the world and to make decisions for themselves.
- I am reflecting my own self-esteem and inability to hear such news (whether directed at me or someone else).
“When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives – about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?” (Harris)
When I am in empathy:
- I can see the situation from their point of view and ask “What information would I want to have if I were in their position?”
“We have all stood on either side of the divide between what someone believes and what he intends for others to understand – and the gap generally looks quite different depending on whether one is the liar or the dupe. Of course the liar often imagines that he does no harm as long as his lies go undetected. But the one lied to almost never shares this view. The moment we consider our dishonesty from the point of view of those we lie to, we recognise that we would feel betrayed if the roles were reversed.” (Harris)
So there’s likely to be a sense of pain from being in a situation like the one I had with John. But what else have you got?
For starters, you have a place from which real, open and honest communication can begin. You might even have a situation in which both parties can express their honest desires and decide they can build a friendship after all. Friendships built on the courage of vulnerability – You can’t put a price on that.
At a minimum, John can make an educated decision about what he will do next.
From a place of commitment to the truth, friendships go to a whole new level. It’s rewarding and gratifying. One of the most obvious benefits of a commitment to truth is that when you give praise to your friends, or tell them you love them, they do not question that you mean it. Similarly, when my closest friends, who I know tell me the truth, tell me that my work is good, or that they have missed me, or that they love me, I can know they mean it. I won’t put a price on that.
“Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.”