I’ve been reading a new book this last week. Well, it’s an essay technically, and I’ve been reading it in spurts during free moments at work, but that’s really not important to the story. I’m not sure why I decided it was important to write down. Or why I’m still writing about it. Gosh. It’s like a disease. I can’t stop!
Okay. Ahem. Anyway.
The book I’ve been reading is Lying by Sam Harris. It’s an essay on the subject of honesty - all facets of the subject, and let me tell you, it’s fascinating. What really caught me about it though, what really made me appreciate it, was that most of what he’s saying is stuff that I’d already arrived at on my own. Only he did it more eloquently, and actually wrote it down instead of just thinking about it.
I’ve long been focused on the issues I see people facing, and the issues that I’ve faced myself in life. I find the way people function fascinating, and I find the way we interact with other people within the fences of society to be even more so. I also find it sad that there is so much pain and anguish alive in the world that doesn’t need to be there. No, seriously, it has no actual reason to exist. I’ve spent years trying to discover the source of these issues, or even come to some rudimentary understanding of the root problem - and while most of this thinking has taken place in the form of introspection and personal evolution, I’ve slowly started to build my ideas to the point where they are applicable farther afield. Sam Harris, it seems, has been doing the same thing. Indeed I know that there are huge numbers of people working on the same or similar issues the world over - as there have been for thousands of years. It seems that this is one of the issues endemic to humanity, to the very fact of our existence.
I’m not going to try and tackle that right now though - though I certainly will in the future. As a side note, I believe that it is the duty of anyone with a conscience and a mind capable of rational thought to stand up and try to apply some thought to making the world as a whole a better place. This is a position that many will disagree with, and it’s not a position I currently want to defend, but I’m leaving it here as a sort of foreshadowing for future posts I’m planning to make.
Right now I want to focus on the personal nature of friendships, and what lying does to them.
Dishonesty comes in a thousand little forms, sneaking into our daily life as naturally as hair enters our lungs. From an early age most of us learn how to lie, and some of us learn how to do so with incredible effect and alacrity. For many of us lying is not even as conscious as “I am going to have to tell a lie here.” Instead it’s a totally subconscious reflex that emerges on its own. We may take notice of it during or after the fact, but in many cases we don’t need to ‘try’ to do it. It just happens.
In the context of friendships though, what does this reflexive dishonesty accomplish? We lie to sooth our friendships, we lie to make people like us, we lie to avoid saying something we think will hurt someone else. Often we lie for what we see as noble, positive reasons.
In a future essay I might discuss why I differ from philosophers who believed that ‘any’ lying was to be avoided - this comes together when we discuss self honesty - but let’s just focus on this theme for a moment: why do we believe that lying to friends is noble? What is noble about protecting a friend by lying?
If I lie to a friend to protect them from a fact, or from a truth as I see it, what is that actually doing to the friendship? Harris makes the point that doing this undermines the trust that a friendship is built upon, and I agree - but the question of ‘why’ still sticks in my mind. And what I keep coming back to is another type of dishonesty - a lie told to the self.
This sort of lying occurs, I think, because we’re afraid to tell the truth. We’re afraid that we might chase away our friend and damage our relationship with them if we’re totally honest. Perhaps our friend shows us a show they really like, but we find it to be trite or dull, or even disturbing. But they enjoy it so obviously - they enjoy it and they obviously want to share that enjoyment with us. We find ourselves worried that telling them that we dislike their favorite show might hurt them. Might be seen as a reflection on their choices as a person - and hell, maybe it is, who knows, but the point is that we’re lying to protect ourselves. We may start off by thinking that we’re lying to avoid an argument, or to avoid hurting the feelings of someone we care about, but in the end what we’re really doing is avoiding the fear of rejection in our own hearts. We’ve managed to lie to ourselves, and make ourselves believe that this is a noble lie to tell.
But what happens when we tell the truth instead?
Respect is the best groundwork for friendship, in my here unsubstantiated opinion. (This is a reminder that I am indeed writing an opinion piece here. I like writing like this, from the hip, unedited, straight from my fingers to the published page, because it helps me remain honest.)
Again. Respect is the best groundwork for friendship. And respect is built through honesty. Respect in friendship is built upon trust. I have experienced too many friendships were my friend seemed dishonest in their opinion toward me. Generally this has come up in simple, minor ways. You know the sort.
You ask them if they want to hang out, and they say “yes!” Then a week or more goes by and nothing is heard from them. You get in touch again, and receive the same sort of response. Well, you think, they obviously want to hang out, they’re probably just really busy. But the weeks go by and you and your friend fail to connect. You’ve tried setting aside the time for them, you’ve suggesting places and times to meet up, you’ve asked them to let you know when the best time for them is since you’re working on the assumption that they’re simply too busy to be attentive. But, in the end, there’s still no word from them. No sign of commitment to the friendship - all they ever return to you is empty platitudes.
Why? Because they are afraid of the confrontation they are afraid will occur if they allow themselves to be honest with you. They can’t bring themselves to tell you that they aren’t just busy, they’re also not feeling like spending time with you right now. Maybe they do like you and your company, but they don’t want it right now. Or maybe they think you’re a great person, but really don’t feel like they have anything in common with you. Whatever the reason is they end up telling you a lie. “Sure, I’d love to hang out!” And they do this not out of maliciousness (we can assume at least), but because they feel that they’re doing the right thing by “letting you down easy”. They’re hoping that eventually you’ll just bugger off, get the message, grow tired of trying - leaving them free from having to have any actual confrontation with you. Without their having to be honest; without their having to deal with emotional risk.
How do situations like that make you feel though? The answer, I’ve found usually, is ‘played with’. It makes it difficult to trust the next friend who cancels on you, or fails to follow through with a plan you’ve made. Instead of giving the next person the benefit of the doubt, maybe you start to assume that none of your friends really wants to spend time with you. Not necessarily of course - that’s an extreme possibility, but this can still affect you in more subtle ways.
But what if that friend had been honest with you? What if they had said from the beginning “I’m sorry, but I’m really tired, and I’m trying to spend time with just a few close friends right now. We’ve had great times in the past, but maybe we can just take some space for a while.”
What if they had been honest with you? You might have felt some sadness and hurt at first, but I suggest that it would be significantly less than what you would feel if the friendship dragged on halfheartedly for months until dying a bloated death in the hot sun. And what’s more, you’ll trust them to be honest in the future. You’ll know that person values you enough to be forthright with you.
So to wrap this up, because I’m running out of time here, I’m going to suggest that you start working honesty into your life on a daily basis. Try to start out by considering your motivations for your actions. Ask yourself why you are doing something, and try to notice if you find yourself being less than honest with yourself and other people. It’s not something you should get down on yourself for - but simply taking notice of when these moments occur will start to alter your behavior.
The next time a situation arises where you feel that you might be forced to tell a lie to spare someone’s feelings, take a deep breath and try to find a way to be honest about how you see the situation. Being honest doesn’t mean being rude or cruel - you can still be diplomatic and kind while being honest, but in being honest you’re also making a commitment to a larger realm of truth and respect. You’re showing the other person that you value them enough to be honest with them - that you respect them enough not to lie to them even if you’re worried about harming the friendship. You’re proving that you’re not more afraid of dealing with the emotional waves then you are willing to be present in the friendship.
I think you’ll start finding your relationships strengthening under this approach. I think that you’ll be happier in the honesty with which you treat yourself and the people in your life. I think, at the very least, that it’s worth the try.
For great and swift read on this subject, check out Lying by Sam Harris.
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