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Reader comment on Angeles Arrien's passage ...

Courage to Risk Telling the Truth


On Jul 30, 2010 Somik Raha wrote:

I found myself disagreeing with the title of this passage, which implies that you need courage to tell the truth. My experience has been that the amount of courage needed is inversely proportional to the depth of the truth to be told. When the truth is shallow, a lot of work has to be done to tell it - that is when we exaggerate and economize on the truth. But when it is really deep, courage does not come to mind - one just tells it like it is.

Viral pointed out another dimension to this which I ought to have picked up on, given my studies with risk. The word "risk" is misplaced - the risk of telling the truth has to be weighed against the risk involved in NOT telling the truth, which in Viral's mind (and I'm sure, many others, who have thought this through a little bit) is much higher. This connects with CFDad's comment that a lie needs to be supported by so many other lies - too much work. 

I find that the hard work needed is not so much in telling the truth, but in arriving at the deepest truth we possibly can. Telling it is the easy part.

Hafeez shared an important reflection - what if someone asks us how they look? Sometimes we have to be careful when telling the truth so as not to hurt others. This may look trivial but is actually a big one - are white lies lesser lies? In order to judge the quality of our decision, we must check if we created enough alternatives for ourself and if we took the time to understand our own values. If I was to ask you, "Do I look fat in this shirt?" and I was you, I'd like to say, "Somik, it is not the fault of the shirt - you look fat in every shirt you wear, but, and a big BUT, it seems to me that you are not really interested in shirts and looks, and this is really a "Do I love you?" question. Of course I do, and what's love got to do with shirts and looks? Do we share such a shallow relationship where I need to give you material affirmations? Is there any doubt that we are both destined to get ugly and then die?" 

I have found that going to the heart of the matter transforms relationships. After a conversation like the one above, I only get asked "How do I look?" questions if the person really wants to know how they look, and if that is the case, I owe it to them to tell the whole truth. Why would I not tell my friend if something is wrong with their dress, and have them be embarrassed about it later? 

So, whether I look at the shallow end or the deep end, truth seems to be the best decision. I don't have to accept the question the way it is asked - I always have the freedom to create options.

My professor says this, that those who tell the whole truth don't have to work that hard in relationships - they just tell the whole truth in every situation. I find this to be true for the times I'm mindful, although finding the whole truth does involve pausing and reflecting.

Sometimes, people bring up extreme examples to challenge the wisdom of telling the truth. For instance, if we were in Nazi Germany, and were under threat of persecution if we were a German soldier in those times who wanted to stand up for his convictions. It turns out that there was such a soldier (whose name escapes me - his story is in the book Ethics for the Real World) who stood up for his convictions and refused to participate in the massacring of the Jews. He was jailed, but since the Nazis did everything legally, they could not file charges, for they'd have to then prove that the orders given were legal, for which they'd have to go all the way up, perhaps requiring Hitler to come to court. So, our conscientous objector spent the whole war in jail, getting to live through the war, and come out as a hero. He had a good outcome, but that is certainly not guaranteed for truth tellers.

A personal story, again connected to an important point that Hafeez made - when we are not authentic, the only ones we fool is ourselves, for others know it clearly. The other day, I was in a conversation with someone who was facing some challenges. I felt a lot of compassion for this person and shared what I could to inspire this person to work harder. I felt good, so did this person-  it was from a space of authenticity. Then, we both were in a talk by a wise teacher, who pretty much echoed what I had said. My ego got inflated, and I was thrilled with the validation. At the next conversation opportunity, I tried talking about the confirmation. Surprisingly, I had to work really hard to say something meaningful, and it didn’t make me feel light at all, it didn’t help those listening (one of whom told me so). It is amazing how in the space of one evening, I could see two extremes - we have all the feedback mechanisms we need to know we are not being authentic, and the biggest one is our own experience of the moment. 

I loved Nipun’s story of him confronting someone who took a parking spot while he was trying to parallel park into it. His dilemma of whether to let it go was resolved when he thought about how instead of him, his mother or someone else’s mother might have to face this situation. So, he decided to stand up and confronted the driver, by asking, “Do you know what you did?” The driver was a kid, who replied, “I was parking my car.” Nipun asked, “And what do you think I was trying to do?” He then made clear that the driver understood this was inappropriate behavior, but he was going to let it go this time. This was remarkable at so many levels - I had an experience some weeks back of being rear-ended by an SUV - the driver was texting. While I didn’t want to fight, I made clear that he had gotten really lucky and he shouldn’t do this again. I was wondering if I did the right thing standing up, but hearing Nipun’s story laid that at rest - the principle I got out of it was this - do I want my loved ones to experience what I just experienced? If not, how can I be the change?



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