Nobody likes a liar. As kids, we were taught by our parents not to lie. In the school playground, getting caught telling a tall tale would see us subjected to poetic taunts about our pants catching fire. And as adults, we live in societies in which telling a lie under oath can have legal consequences.
The value placed on honesty isn’t specific to any culture, religion or ideology. Truthfulness is a universal virtue.
Also universal, however, is the harmless white lie – the cherished caveat, the exception to the rule. It’s where we find ourselves bending the truth, just slightly, to get out of an uncomfortable or difficult situation. It’s where we say what we think needs to be said, rather than what we know to be accurate, because we’re trying to avoid hurting a person’s feelings or offending them.
It’s not dishonesty, per se. White lies are justified under the circumstances and necessary, even! We’ve all been in those situations where telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth would be disastrous. Those situations where we need to tell a little white lie.
Or so I thought.
As Bahá’ís we are taught that truthfulness is “the foundation of all human virtues”. When I first came across this quote by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, my eyes scanned lazily over the passage, without the full meaning actually sinking in. I took the quote to mean that truthfulness, like all the other virtues, was a good thing and, well, pretty important. Just like all the other good practices we are meant to aspire to.
But over time, I’ve come to see that truthfulness really is the foundation – the prerequisite, even – to all other virtues. And possibly one of the hardest!
As a society, we’ve been told that white lies in certain circumstances are acceptable – and with good reason. There are so many situations where being completely truthful is incredibly tricky! But what I’ve started to see is that when we stick to the gold standard of truthfulness – complete truthfulness – and deal with those difficult situations without fudging the truth, we create opportunities for ourselves to develop countless other virtues too.
Here are 3 tricky truthfulness situations. We’re all familiar with these situations where a harmless little white lie seems perfectly reasonable and acceptable – even preferable! But in each of these situations, taking the more difficult road of being 100% truthful allows us to reap the rewards of personal growth and the development of our virtues!
Scenario #1: Lying to spare another person’s feelings.
We’ve all been there. A friend excitedly asks what you think of the dinner he/she lovingly prepared. You take a deep breath before forcing yourself to have another bite – your struggle to find a polite response is matched only by your struggle to find your appetite.
The urge to just smile and say “It’s great, I love it!” comes from a good place. You are, after all, genuinely appreciative of the gesture and would hate to hurt your friend’s feelings.
It’s so much easier to just tell a little white lie but focusing on conveying our appreciation and being considerate of your friend’s feelings while also remaining truthful allows us to practice other virtues too.
By practicing thankfulness, we are able to focus more on the things that we can be positive about and draw attention to that instead. And by practicing tactfulness, we’re able to be honest about our opinions without sounding overly negative or offending the person.
Scenario #2: Lying to avoid conflict.
The most common method people use to deal with difficult conversations is simply to not have them.
In the past, I’ve found myself trying to maintain unity and peace simply by avoiding any semblance of conflict at all costs, without realizing that peace and conflict are not necessarily at two ends of a spectrum.
Lying to avoid potential conflict might seem like the easier thing to do – but it’s not being truthful. Truthfulness involves attempting to address the issue in an assertive and respectful manner. It’s harder to do because it requires that we deal with a sensitive and often emotional issue while practicing a superhuman level of detachment and understanding.
Being truthful in a situation like this builds a bridge of understanding between the two parties and provides them both with a great opportunity to develop hugely important consultation skills!
By addressing the issue sensitively and respectfully, we are also practicing assertiveness which helps us appreciate our own inherent worth as a human being! We are training ourselves to realize that we have the same right to respect that everyone else has.
Scenario #3: Getting out of a sticky situation.
Imagine the following situations. You’re late to an important work meeting and you tell your boss that you were up all night applying for other jobs and slept through your alarm. An acquaintance asks you if you’re free for dinner on Saturday night and you tell them that you are, but would much rather spend Saturday night alone at home watching a good movie.
It’s so much easier and so much more convenient – and so much more socially acceptable – to just say “I got stuck in traffic” or “I wish I could but I have a family dinner to attend”.
These situations are the trickiest, I think, because nobody would have every find out that you were actually free but couldn’t be bothered leaving your home or that you weren’t actually late because of heavy traffic.
I’ve often found myself in sticky situations where I’m tempted to make use of loopholes and talk myself out of a difficult situation by relying on technicalities. But in these situations, forcing myself to remain truthful and reap the consequences of my actions – no matter how unpleasant – has had one major advantage: it’s teaches me to plan better for the next time.
It’s helped me to practice the often-underused virtues of diligence, orderliness and responsibility. I find myself procrastinating less and being more punctual to meetings because the thought of having to admit that I’m late to something because I was watching TV trumps any enjoyment I could possibly get from watching the show!
Most of all, however, practicing truthfulness has helped me to practice integrity – dong the right thing even if nobody else would know if I didn’t.
What situations have you been in where you’ve had to struggle to be truthful? How has choosing to be truthful helped you develop your other virtues?