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Posts from — October 2013

The Miserable Truth

The Miserable Truth

It would be no overstatement to say that the key to transformational self-work lies in the willingness to tell the truth, which as we’ve heard many times, has the power to set us free. This simple idea has immediately useful implications. It tells us, for example, that if we’re feeling “unfree,” stuck, burdened, and so on in a situation, then there’s some relevant truth that we have not told, perhaps not even told ourselves. Admitting the truth to ourselves is, of course, a precondition of being truthful with others, and throughout history, poets and philosophers have instructed us accordingly; “This above all: to thine own self be true,” writes Shakespeare in the famous declaration delivered by Polonius in Hamlet (Act I Scene III), “And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Nor have our most notable spiritual leaders failed to recognize and affirm the saving power of the truth. Gandhi, for example, writes:

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall—think of it, always.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. expresses the same understanding:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

It is no accident that both of these great leaders discerned a correspondence between truth and love, similar to the one found in Plato’s work between Truth (capitalized because the term was used to denote an eternal form), Goodness, and Beauty, which suggests that the truth is by its nature good and beautiful. Even if we don’t go as far as Plato, we have Gandhi, King, and many other eminent teachers testifying that somehow being truthful and being loving are two sides of a coin, which leads to the conclusion that being truthful is always the loving thing to do, while any untruthful act is by that count also unloving.

Here steps forward the devil’s advocate with the inevitable counterexamples that aim to make a case for what we might think of as “loving untruths.” “Do I look fat in this dress?” “How old do you think I am?” “Was it good for you?” Worse, say a man who has experienced a relentless series of setbacks and reversals of fortune finds himself standing on the ledge of a building, about to end his life in a final leap of desperation. The fellow clearly is unstable. You are leaning out the window, wanting to save his life. He looks at you, his eyes focused nowhere, and with a tremulous voice, asks, “Am I crazy?” What is the truthful answer? What is the loving answer? Is this a case likely to demonstrate the power of the truth to set free?

But we have a reply to our devil’s advocate. We can maintain that telling the truth is always the loving and good and beautiful and saving thing to do, but acknowledge that, given the holdings we may have against the truth, we may react at first hearing the truth, finally told, with resistance, perhaps a great deal of it. Not uncommonly, the truth that can set us free strikes our ear as the miserable truth, the terrible truth, the truth that hurts—but it hurts only to heal, and often when resistance has gone on for so long, the need for the healing is long overdue. The miserable truth may upset our plans, end a sham of a marriage, insist that we quit a soulless job, even leap—not from the ledge of a building but into the unknown. In all of these, however, it is not the truth that is miserable but our resistance to it, our investment in untruth, and it is just this from which we need to be set free, so that we can begin moving with life again rather than against it.

We choose our battles of course, and there is nearly always a way to be truthful with others that will evoke in them at least a momentary willingness. We can be tactful, skillful, kind, empathetic, and so on. Sometimes the truth is hard to hear, a “miserable” truth in this sense, but it is in just such situations that telling the truth is most important. Especially in those cases where the truth hurts, a greater purpose is served in the telling. Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives us this, too, unforgettably, in Act III Scene IV: “I must be cruel only to be kind; thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.”

October 13, 2013   Comments Off on The Miserable Truth