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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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May 27th, 2009

What Works: Radical Honesty

Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no



I always considered myself honest, and I had a lot of pride attached to that. I had a boss once who would stare you in the eye and just flat-out lie — I mean on the level of “The sky is green.” — daring you to challenge him. No one would, and we’d move forward as a company based on the sky being green. I was never that kind of liar.

As a teenager, when my friends snuck out at night or created cover stories of sleepovers and studying, I simply disobeyed my parents and accepted the consequences.

But there are other kinds of lies.

Let’s say you invited me to a dinner party and I had no intention of going. Odds are I’d say, “I’ll try to make it.” You’d get enough food and refreshments to include me. During the party, you’d have a nagging hope that I’d make it — and a quietly growing frustration with me for not showing up. By avoiding the slight awkwardness of the moment when you invited me, I’d cause lingering damage to our friendship.

I used to surround myself with untrustworthy friends. We used to profess undying devotion and then never show up for each other. It let me off the hook for being untrustworthy myself. But these days, I want to live with all my cards on the table.

I want to speak plainly about lying. Is it ever OK? My gut reaction is no. But it’s interesting how quickly this can get messy.

Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’

There’s a saying: If you want to have self-esteem, do estimable acts. You cannot force someone to trust you. But you can choose to be honest, and when you are consistently honest with others, you gain their trust.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands the Commandment to not bear false witness against a neighbor into a ban on making any oaths. He concludes with a statement that, when I first read it long ago, jumped off the page and burned itself onto my heart: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.'” (Matthew 5:37)

The footnote in the New American Standard Bible bluntly explains: “Jesus demands of his disciples a truthfulness that makes oaths unnecessary.” Quakers and Mennonites refuse to swear under oath to tell the truth, because to do so would suggest that without the oath, they might not.

Not lying is a good practice in general, and it’s a key principle in many religions. One of the five Buddhist precepts is to “refrain from false speech.” The principle of satya, or “truthfulness,” in Yogic philosophy and Hinduism says “not to speak untruth physically, vocally or mentally.” And adds, “Speech should be used for the service of all,” delivered with “softness,” “sweetness” and “kindness.” Similarly, Ephesians 4:15 counsels to speak “the truth in love.”

“White” lies

Ironically, many think they are lying to maintain kindness and harmony — pretending to like the neighbor you hate; keeping family secrets; and just generally avoiding awkward situations and hard truths . But this is a fake harmony based on pretending past problems and differences don’t exist, depriving us of the possibility of deeper union.

I was raised by a mother who, with good intentions, explained her Byzantine structure of white lie rules to me so I would understand how to be a polite member of society. She meant well but from a very early age I found this disturbing. Something inside me knew it was wrong. Something inside me loved Truth.

And yet, I lied. Not big fat lies for personal gain; not my mother’s “niceness.” My lies were based in fear — fear that without them you wouldn’t like me, or find me attractive or interesting; that you wouldn’t include me or respect me.

Would I lie to you?

Great thinkers and spiritual leaders have grappled with the question of whether it’s ever OK to lie with varying results.

The Dalai Lama, in Ethics for the New Millennium, offers a thought experiment: You see a man fleeing people who want to kill him; they ask which way he went. Not harming is the higher purpose, he concludes, and may justify lying.

In On Lying, St. Augustine takes an absolutist position. He points to Psalm 5 and asks, How can one ever prevaricate if the Lord abhors liars and will destroy them? St. Aquinas, in Summa Theologia, says “every lie is a sin,” but offers gradations of sinfulness with lies done in jest or with good intentions pretty far down the list.

Good Intentions

So what about good intentions? Surely, the Dalai Lama’s liar means well. Am I just oversensitive on the issue because of my upbringing?

Dr. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, says, “First, never speak falsehood.” You might refuse to answer the hypothetical pursuers, but not say, “He went thatta way” and point in the wrong direction.

Even withholding truth, Peck says, should always be treated as a serious moral decision and the primary factor should always be the person-lied-to’s “capacity to utilize the truth for his or her own spiritual growth.” If, for example, parents tell a child early on they’re considering divorce, they will simply scare the child, who doesn’t have the capacity to use this information in a healthy way.

The problem with these evaluations is that they only work if you are well intentioned and loving in your discernment , and the mind left to its own devices has an amazing ability to rationalize selfish behavior.

Radical honesty

Brad Blanton, psychologist and author of Radical Honesty, is having none of it. He argues that there’s never a situation served by dishonesty. Blanton challenges everyone to clear up lies from the past, honestly express current feelings and thoughts, stop playing a role and just be our authentic selves.

Perhaps there is no easy answer. When Ephesians 4 tells us to speak “the truth in love,” it says by doing so we “grow up in all aspects.” This is about maturity — about using discernment and then taking responsibility for our actions.

His compelling thesis is that relationships based on untruth cannot be deep or rewarding. To my mind Blanton is missing one key ingredient: the concern expressed in all spiritual traditions for combining honesty with love and kindness. His version of radical honesty sounds kind of obnoxious.

All too often, I see honesty used as a weapon, as carte blanche for being a jerk, with the self-righteous truth teller hiding behind, “I’m only being honest.”

Growing up in all aspects

Perhaps there is no easy answer. When Ephesians 4 tells us to speak “the truth in love,” it says by doing so we “grow up in all aspects.” This is about maturity — about using discernment and then taking responsibility for our actions.

The sidebar on the right offers a little help for your discernment process. If you are planning to lie, at minimum, I encourage you to consider trying the steps I offer there first. Let’s be radically honest with ourselves here: How often do our lies deal with thwarting an innocent’s murder or protecting a child’s sense of security? No, usually they’re to protect our own egos.

Have you struggled with whether honesty is always the best policy? What are your experiences in the grey area? Are there harmless lies? What do you think about radical honesty? Comment below or email me at phil at bustedhalo.com.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • http://www.FUNKMODE.com Mighty

    I feel it’s worth adding here that asking questions does not entitle one to a response. As in the case of the ne’er-do-wells chasing the person down the street, the fact that they asked you a question means nothing. No one is required to speak to anyone. If you choose to initiate a dialogue with me through a question, my decision is beyond truth or not truth, it’s about talking to this person or not. In my case, I am not inclined to speak to a person who means to harm another. The question asked is inconsequential. They could be asking if I wanted a million dollars or three wishes. I choose not to engage this person and again, the initial question asked is irrelevant.

    I make this clear to all in my circle. You cannot expect an answer to any ol’ thing you ask. Some information is none of your business. Sometimes, the moment is not appropriate. Sometimes, I just don’t have the time to talk to you. Sometimes, I don’t want to talk to you. The bottom line here is, as a proponent of letting your “yes” mean yes and your “no”, no, carefully weighing when and with whom you speak is an integral part of the process.

    On a similar note, we are admonished not to cast our pearls before swine. There are some who cannot or will not respect your truth. These people must be cast away, not your truth. Speak rightly to those who can appreciate right speech. Those who are seeking to injure, those seeking to argue or those seeking the lie have no place among you.

    Finally, an illustration … You are serving dinner to a small party of loved ones. Suddenly, a loud knock comes upon the door. It is an uninvited person who, knowing that it is the dinner hour and smelling the delightful aromas emanating from your home, is demanding to be served your very best meal. The question is not whether to serve this person your best food or to serve some leftovers instead. You simply leave the door closed.

  • David K.

    A very interesting article. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    I have seen it attributed to various faith communities, that one’s words should pass a three prong test:

    1) Is what is to be expressed reasonably certain to be true?
    2) Is what is to be expressed kind?
    3) Is what is to be expressed helpful?

    A proposed statement that fails on any of these is better to remain unexpressed.

    Best regards, wishes and prayers-


  • yaya

    I used to be so honest. Then, little by little, I started to lie, with “white” lies. This is a slippery slope and I’ve gone back to trying to be honest again, but it’s hard after hiding myself from others for so long.

    One incident stands out when I learned to lie: I interviewed to be an RA in college. They asked me how I would deal with a certain situation and I was honest, saying, “I don’t know, it seems like it would be hard, but here’s what I try to do…” I didn’t get the RA job, and the housing association had a post-interview session for all the people who had been turned down from the job. In the post-interview session, they told the whole group not to say anything negative in an interview. But after I heard this I started hiding myself more and more, until I realized I would lie without even meaning too any more.

    So now I’m trying to be honest at all times, because for me it was a slippery slope. Also, I really respect the Christians I know who are honest, even refusing to tell “white” lies, but they make it work and manage not to hurt people’s feelings. I’m inspired by them.

  • Meg Allcott

    I really liked your article. I think it is best to not be brutally honest with someone to purposely hurt their feelings. I agree with you.

    I had always made up excuses to go over a friend’s house when I knew one of his friends would be there. I didn’t like this friend of his. No one in our group wanted to tell him. A few times we went there and unfortunately we were stuck with her being there and dealing with her. It wasn’t pleasant. Finally I told him directly that I just didn’t like her and told him to tell me when she was invited and I wouldn’t go. It worked out well. I explained to him that not everyone likes everyone. So now we all go over to his house and have a very nice, peaceful and quiet visit without her being there. In this case honesty worked.

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