For me honesty has been a virtue for a very long time. It was instilled in me by my parents and encouraged by pretty much every adult authority figure from grade school upward. They said honesty is the best policy, the truth shall set you free, and that the truth always comes to light. What they didn’t say was that this stands in stark contrast to the culture we live in.
To some degree finding the truth of things, and stripping them bare to their essence became somewhat of an obsession. An obsession that began with me finding how everything around me as a child had been sanitized, to protect me from grim realities about the nature of life itself. I was angry, furious even, that the adults around me looked me dead in the face and lied. They lied through their teeth without shame.
Furthermore they asked me to lie. My own parents asked me to lie for years about behaviors that they engaged in which were irresponsible. More than once social workers showed up to the house and each time I was told by my parents to lie about what happened in the house. I was told that if I didn’t lie, I’d be taken away to a terrible place away from my parents.
So of course I lied. I lied for them and I lied for myself. The moment I stopped the lie, I ended up in therapy and foster care. I promised myself then that I would avoid lying at all costs, because those things ate away at me in ways I didn’t like. It sat on my back as a burden that I didn’t wish to carry.
I carried that mindset into adulthood and found that the life of the modern adult is riddled with lies. Some of them big, but most of them small and numerous. In our daily lives there are unwritten social rules about the truth and when to express it. Facts about mundane or important day to day things can readily be expressed, but facts about people fall into another category.
When it comes to people, we are asked to say nothing but nice things. To put it simply, we are asked to lie by omission. For example, you might know for a fact that your boss treats everyone badly and is cheating on her husband with two store employees, but you aren’t allowed to say that even if it’s true. So when she walks by your work station, all you can think to tell her is that her hair looks nice, or comment about the weather.
The average western adult is forged of this complex identity constructed of multiple tiny lies that they’ve told themselves over the years. They are in a way wrapped in fragile layers of lies that they’ve told themselves about the nature of the world, and even of who they are. So when you see someone doing something that morally reprehensible, you can be sure that they are likely protected by a kind of lie armor; a barrier that protects them from feeling bad about their actions.
This is often why brutal honesty is taken as a kind of assault. People build up these lies to make the world or themselves seem nicer. They do it to survive the dark cold reality of life itself. So when you tell someone honestly about who they are or who they seem to others, you’ve just run a sledgehammer through that armor.
This is hardly an argument for dishonesty. In fact it’s quite the opposite. When faced with this conundrum we have a choice. We can indulge these people and their lies by saying nothing, tell them the uncomfortable truth, or meet them halfway with constructive criticism. The latter often being the most prudent choice.
Constructive criticism is often the happy medium that allows for self improvement. If you indulge the lies that a person has told themselves, then it can be detrimental in a number of ways. Especially if those lies are wrapped up in that person’s level of skill. If they believe they are better at something than they actually are, then they may never improve where they are lacking, and might never find work.
However if you are able to tell someone what needs work, then that person can hopefully grow and change for the better. Lies can prevent people from being the best they can be as a person and as a worker with a skill. Our indulgence of these lies is often the biggest barrier to personal growth.
As with all things, that personal growth comes with a price. You must be willing to cast aside the safety net of lies that protect your ego. You must be willing to take that difficult look at yourself and others.
Even with all that it isn’t easy. These lies are a strong defense mechanism, and most people don’t want to cast that aside, or get better. They would rather live in the reality they’ve constructed for themselves, where they are the hero and never the villain. A world where their actions are always justified, and they are always well meaning.
As time goes by and memories begin to fade, people look fondly onto even the worst things that happened to them with a kind of fondness. They lie to themselves about the nature of what happened and think back on it as being good and even a little nostalgic.
The truth about the nature of brutal honesty, is that it will always be painful to those who aren’t used to it. In times of turmoil, reality becomes a difficult pill to swallow, and even when faced with the truth, most people will double down on the lies to avoid the pain.
There are of course times when the gloves must come off. Sometimes there are situations where the stakes are high and you must choose between saving people and protecting their delicate feelings. There are moments where you need to do more than deliver a reality slap. You may need to send a metaphorical wrecking ball through a seemingly impenetrable wall of lies to protect people from a greater evil.
In that case I wish you the best of luck, because the world often isn’t kind to purveyors of truth or whistleblowers. They aren’t kind to those perceived to be killjoys. They like to remain blissfully ignorant as long as possible, and sometimes the lesser evil is to destroy their delusions. It’s not a path for the faint of heart, or people who enjoy being liked.
I won’t lie to you. I like many others lie by omission when dealing with friends and loved ones. I end up doing it to survive and to have people willing to talk to me. It’s nothing excessive, just that level of polite dishonesty that you need to have to survive in the world. It’s not about what I say but often what I don’t say. Truthfully I hate it. I hate that to protect some people I have to not say what I really want to. I hate these barriers we create for ourselves, and how hard it is to do the right thing because I know how much shit I’ll get for it.
I hate that all that it takes to lose people you love and care about, is a little honesty. That sometimes relationships are sustained not by what you say, but what you don’t say. But most of all, I hate that some people can not handle constructive criticism to the point where you have to coddle them like a child.
Then you have to hold their hand and gradually walk them to the truth in small doses. But it won’t matter, because they’ll jerk their hand away and throw a tantrum over the truth you’ve shown them and deny everything. Then you have to start the process again, because other people’s lives are at stake or they have something to lose if this overgrown child doesn’t see reason. But you can only do that so many times.
There is a phrase often misused; the concept of being cruel to be kind. Sometimes it’s far worse to let someone live in ignorance, than it is to tell them the truth. But it’s also not easy to know where that line is, or when to let someone live in their delusion and just walk away. However in the current world we live in, I think we’re in great need of honesty if we want to move forward. To move onward we’ll all need to walk that delicate line between truth and the lies that cushion the blow of reality itself.