Do you think of yourself as a truthful person? Or do you agree that you are a liar? No, I am not trying to offend you. It’s just that I have recently become aware of how little attention we pay to ourselves and our actions, leading to frequent lies.
Inspired by Swamiji, I had wondered if I could choose to always tell the truth. I was, I believed, a fairly truthful person. But my belief came to naught once I started to pay attention. I quickly realised that while I may not lie deliberately, I was as prone to falsehoods as anyone else. I realised how easily and thoughtlessly a falsehood slips out of our mouths. And it does not even need to be a white lie. The little padding on the truth that makes it not quite a lie but not the truth either; the little exaggeration that makes a thought more than it is; the laughing sentence delivered with a smile because you know it will make the other person happy—aren’t these all forms of lies? In fact, lies became ubiquitous once I began noticing them.
Which also made me wonder if it was alright to lie? If the small social talk that pleases us was even possible without little falsehoods? Like the times we use business as an excuse to decline invitations even though we aren’t busy or when we compliment someone’s work to encourage them even though it is mediocore or when we promise to consider a request even though we know we will say no? These are not quite lies, yet not quite the truth either.
And then there is the case of the truth not told or half told. Isn’t that a lie too? Take the example of my mom-in-law who was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma. Given her predilection for depression and negativity, and because we feared that she might give up all hope, we chose not to tell her that she had cancer. Instead, we took advantage of her illiteracy and dressed up her illness in ‘science speak’, telling her that she had a tumour akin to the cyst she once had. We knew she could not google her illness herself to learn that she may have as little as five months to live. Weren’t we lying then? And then there was my mother in law herself. Though illiterate, she was quite sharp. In fact, she was sharper and smarter than many well educated people I know, including myself. So while she pretended that she believed us, I always felt that she knew the truth but she kept up the facade for her children’s sake. Even if she didn’t know, she definitely suspected it. So weren’t we all lying to each other?
But these are just the small reasons for why I continue to lie. There is yet another more powerful reason that makes me lie or, more recently, keep quiet. I have learnt that truth is a powerful weapon, too powerful for ordinary men to hold. It has the power to hurt like nothing else. And the desire to hurt when we are hurt can often be too powerful to resist.
Sometimes when you choose truthfulness, it is very tempting to correct a lie, even at the cost of hurting someone. Once, my mom-in-law said something which I felt to be false. I immediately wanted to contradict and correct her. Luckily, I realised that my truth would be extremely hurtful for her. But still the temptation was strong. That’s when I realised that until I can choose to hold my tongue and feel compassion in my very bones, I am not ready to wield the power of truth. I will probably do more harm than good to myself and others. Speaking the truth well is a skill that needs to be learnt. Knowing how to deflect attention, choosing words that are the truth but not hurtful, waiting a moment before blurting out my truth, walking away from confronting a lie—these are skills I still need to learn. Only then can I consider choosing truth and only the truth as my companion. And so, until I learn this skill, I meander along, trying to be a better, stronger person; trying to tell the truth but catching myself lying every now and then.