On Honesty: Reflections of a Reformed Liar

10 04 2014

Always tell the Truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said.
~ Mark Twain

I guess I’ll just blurt this out: I haven’t always been a stickler for the truth.

In fact, during my formative years, my parents grew weary of me stonewalling where the truth was concerned. Once, I was sent outside to get firewood from the pile against the back wall of our house, underneath the picture window in the family room. There had been wet weather, followed by plummeting temperatures, which caused ice to form like a layer of cement between the neatly stacked rows. I grabbed a piece of wood and it wouldn’t budge, so I applied brute force. The log broke free from its ice casing and flew upward – directly into the plate glass of the huge window, cracking it straight up the middle. After brief consideration of my course of action, I quickly gathered the rest of the firewood and took it inside. I didn’t mention the broken window to anyone as I nonchalantly proceeded through the day.

At dinner that night, my dad said, “Your mother and I would like to know who broke the window in the family room.”  I looked around the table at the innocent faces of my siblings and surprised myself by fessing-up. My folks were so astonished that I had stepped forward they were speechless. I didn’t even get in trouble for the costly damage. Years later my parents told me that they knew it had been me, but had never anticipated that I would own up to it: they always gave me the opportunity to come clean but I so rarely chose any road but the one to perdition.

In graduate school, I worked as an intern in a research and service project in which we provided values-based career counseling to academically gifted students in exchange for their participation in our research. Each student took several instruments – a personality test, a vocational preference assessment, and a values inventory. The values inventory (a version of the Rokeach Value Survey) asks takers to rank order values according to the importance of that value to them. The interns who provided the counseling interventions and interpreted survey results to the student participants took the instruments and engaged in the counseling session activities during our training. Many of my graduate cohort selected “honesty” as one of their highest values. (This was also true of professional colleagues later in my career.) I never understood this. Not once did honesty crack my top five.

In group discussions about the values we selected, I often found myself stating that “The truth is overrated.” I had numerous arguments to shore up my position. I believed, I said, that truth was malleable and an absolute reliance on it was detrimental to one’s overall smooth functioning in life. I can’t even remember all of the examples and justifications I used – they were many and I was eloquent in explaining my position.

As I matured (remember I was a late bloomer), I began to believe my own hype about truth less and less. When I noticed some inner discomfort with my old stand, I decided that I had been confusing the concepts of truth and honesty. I decided that truth was not always convenient, therefore could be set aside in unimportant situations. Honesty, on the other hand, was linked somehow to character and integrity. As such, Honesty should be observed, in spirit at least, at all times.

Yes, I am capable of the mental gymnastics to have accepted that I could tell an untruth (a lie) while in service to the greater value of honesty. However, it is instructive to note that at the time I engaged in these mental gymnastics, I was living a very constricted life – one in which I was emotionally isolated in spite of being surrounded by people constantly through my work in higher education. I was ballooning up in weight – until I reached a high somewhere above 350 pounds. I felt insecure, fearful, and lonely.

Something was seriously wrong with my whole perspective on truth and honesty. Eventually, I came to see this. One of my great “AHA” moments in life came when I realized that my vigorous defense of lying was a way of supporting my decision to continue lying to myself. And the whole argument that I could be honest without being truthful was simply a rationalization to allow me to feel like I hadn’t completely given up on the concept of integrity. The truth was that I lied to protect myself – in exactly the same way that I gained weight to erect a self-protective barrier to keep from being hurt. The two were inextricably bound with one another, entwined coping mechanisms. When I began to address one, I was forced to take a hard look at the other.

A few things I’ve learned on this journey to be more truthful with myself and, therefore, to create a more honest presence in my life and the world:

  • “Some people will not tolerate such emotional honesty in communication. They would rather defend their dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others. Therefore, having rationalized their phoniness into nobility, they settle for superficial relationships.” ~ unknown author

When we fear emotional honesty, we choose isolation. I once thought that people must not pay close attention to me because they didn’t “get” me. When I started being honest with myself, I realized that people didn’t get “the real me” because I never shared her. I was virtually always posing as a person I thought others might like. Getting beyond the superficial requires dropping the pose.

  • “We tell lies when we are afraid….afraid of what we don’t know, afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger.” ~ Tad Williams

The fear grows stronger because we have added the fear of being “found out” in our dishonesty. It grows stronger because we have fed it. And it grows stronger because we have further removed ourselves from right relationship – with others and with ourselves. Being that far removed from human connection is a very frightening place to be.

  • “Our lives improve only when we take chances- and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” – Walter Anderson 

I originally set out to lose some weight. That’s all, just improve my health and get in better shape. I quickly realized, however, that for me that task would be impossible without getting real with myself – without telling myself the truth about what I ate, how much, and why. I’m not sure I would have set out on that journey if I had realized how it would affect every aspect of my life, every thing that I thought I believed. Because once you begin telling the truth in one area of your life, it has a cascading effect. You find you need to do so in other areas. The risk is real, because choosing to be truthful with yourself will lead to change.

All that said, you’re probably wondering whether I always tell the truth now. I can honestly say that I try to. This new life I’m working to establish offers me daily opportunities to assess the veracity of what I tell myself – about who I am, about what I want, about how I relate with others in my new community. I don’t have to share it all with everyone, but I do have to take some time daily to reflect on how honest I’m being with myself.

Integrity is telling myself the Truth. Andy Honesty is telling the Truth to other people. – Spencer Johnson

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One response

10 04 2014
Jason

Great post Jen! There was a song on the radio awhile back that stated that “you can’t learn to tell the truth until you learn to lie”. That sounds like what you’ve been experiencing. Here’s to learning to tell the truth, no matter what, because the truth shall set you free. Grace and peace to you. Thank you for sharing.

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