With great power comes great responsibility
But who are those that carry great power?
It might not be intuitive when looking at the world, but it is us who’s capacity for thought and speech is truly outstanding. So while many would attribute this quote to superheroes, only a few might recognize the divine seed in humankind. It therefore also happens that most of us don’t pay for this privilege with virtue.
Day to day, we tell lies to avoid conflict or to purposefully deceive. Although we intuitively know that lying is bad, the short term reward of deception often feels more persuasive to us. The lack of awareness how such behavior will damage all your social relationships, distort your thinking capability and ruin your life on a fundamental level, is something we really need to be woken up to.
Yet, as dramatic as this might sound, most of us wouldn’t necessarily identify as liars, but just acknowledge being often unthoughtful and rash with our words. I felt the same way until the last years of high school when I decided to take my word choice seriously and from there to never lie again.
It seems like everybody has their own single best life advice that completely changed their life. So, this is mine.
A note on truth
Let’s start by clarifying an important distinction between truth and truthfulness.
Truth is an epistemological term and refers to the correctness of an idea, like in science. Truthfulness is a moral term and refers to the intention of a person who chooses between honesty and falsehood. So one can be truthful but mistaken, as well as deceitful but right on accident.
The appeal of this essay is not to remain silent until you are sure to know the absolute truth about something, but to aim at representing reality as honestly as possible and therefore to choose words very deliberately and precisely.
You might not be able to tell the truth, but you can at least not lie.
Why not to lie
The safety reason
People like safety. This often makes them feel the need to tell lies in order to protect someone else’s feelings. They fear the truth or the consequences and therefore see Speaking as not safe. What they don’t realize is that it is way less safe not to Speak.
- “Oh, I love this gift!”. Do you? No? But now you reinforced a wrong expectation which might lead to you getting more of the same type of gift. By that, you have stolen the other person from ever experiencing your honest gratitude for a truly loved present. Try rather something like this: “Thank you very much. I would have never guessed that!”
- “I believe in you, so don’t give up on your career dreams!”. I am not saying at all that you shouldn’t motivate your friends to pursue their goals with maximal energy. But if their career has been failing for the last ten years or it’s bluntly obvious that their plan has a major flaw, you basically steal their valuable life time by giving well meant but bad advice. Maybe say this: “Know that I will always support you, but have you maybe considered …?”
- “No no, you look absolutely not fat!”. Honesty doesn’t require being rude, but blocking your friend’s motivation who might be reconsidering their health condition by not giving a wake-up call doesn’t make you a particularly good friend, either. This is what a polite answer can sound like: “People wouldn’t call you fat, but in your situation I would start working out.”
This is an important opportunity: be the one friend who always gives the most honest criticism and from whom a compliment will therefore always feel ten times as good.
The trusting reason
There is no guarantee that telling your friend to start exercising will actually make him do it. But what all those examples additionally show, is that the matter of safety isn’t the only concern in social interactions. Because lying, in any scenario, is breaking something deeper than safety: trust.
But trust goes beyond simply believing each other. Trust is the honest fulfillment of the written and unwritten expectations in a friendship, one of which is seeing each other as even.
But if you lie for safety reasons, you are actually showing a certain type of arrogance. Do you really think of yourself as the best judge of how much your friend should understand about their own life? Wouldn’t you hope from a good friend that they point out as quickly as possible when you have done something wrong? Seeing yourself as superior and therefore in the right to lie for safety, is the mark of a broken friendship dynamic.
Also, in order to be completely trusted, it isn’t enough just to be honest to your friend. Imagine a situation where you hear your friend effortlessly lie to someone else. You might as well wonder, Was I ever lied to in the same manner? Could you really trust someone who can seamlessly switch between the truth for you and a lie for someone else?
If you want to become an honest person, it’s not a bad idea to start with your closest people, but crucial to understand that the journey requires completion.
The practical reason
Despite the philosophical nature of this topic, there is also a practical disadvantage for liars.
No matter what lying seems to give in the short term, to make it work, liars have to keep track of their lies. Having told enough lies will eventually make the effort to sustain them unsustainable.
If you honestly change your mind about anything at any time, it will be completely generic. However, a liar would have to literally rethink his whole artificial infrastructure of thoughts and opinions in order to not get caught.
Honesty is not just a gift to others, it is a gift to yourself because it lets you learn from mistakes, instead of being tied to them.
The powerful reason
To lie is to be careless with your speech. People are often careless, when they see something as unimportant, impactless or powerless. We already established the importance and impact of honesty in your social life, but most people still lack the feeling of power in their words.
Picture this. Everybody is the center of their human network. You know maybe a thousand people. Each of them knows a thousand more. That makes you two people away from a million. Three people away from a billion. Think about that for a minute.
However, this power is at first only potential. In order to truly influence people with your words, they need to be robust. And nothing makes your words more robust and respected than honesty.
The philosophical reason
Last but not least, this is why honesty is so fundamental and therefore must be absolute.
It is a truism that our mind and actions have a causal relationship to another. All our knowledge, conscious and subconscious, provides the necessary structure by which we guide our actions.
When you do and say what you think, you act out a true reality. When you lie, whether through words or actions, you act out a false reality.
The problem is that by acting it out you bring yourself in a state of inconsistency, or what is often called “cognitive dissonance”. Absolute honesty would have avoided it in the first place. But once that has left the table, you basically give your subconscious the wildcard to slowly start warping your perception of reality to match your actions. All this does is take away your freedom to have a harmonious existence that is routed in truth.
Lying is the royal road to lose God.
No matter how much you aimed a lie at somebody else, ultimately it is going to be you who will live with a corrupted soul in a false reality.
Maybe it’s time to start having your own opinions and not those that comfort others.
Maybe it’s time to develop your first real friendship with complete mutual trust.
Maybe it’s time to come to terms with reality.
Where to start
The prerequisite for honesty is to let go of the outcome. You have to develop a form of belief that nothing brings a better world into being than the stated truth. This means that sometimes you have to allow yourself to be a fool, in order to hopefully not be one the next time.
To figure out where exactly to start, take this exercise:
Sit down peacefully with no distractions. Enjoy the silence. Bring all your focus to your conscience. Ask yourself the following questions, each at a time, and try to really mean it.
- When are times I feel like overprotecting someone else’s feelings?
- When are times I carelessly speak out of convenience?
Wait as long as your conscience needs to speak to you. Listen and accept, because you won’t like what you are going to hear. Think about the answers your conscience gave you and don’t fear to write them down.
Finally, go back. Dive deeper. This requires the most meditative state. Ask yourself:
- What are things I know to be false, but nonetheless believe in?
- What are things I know to be true, but nonetheless suppress in my mind?
Be patient. Let your conscience speak again. Listen and obey.
“That which you most need will be found where you least want to look.”~ Carl Jung
This exercise is not easy, and neither are the results. That’s because nothing in life comes without a cost; you have to pay a price for everything. However, honesty is something you really want to pay for, because the alternative is worse.
You might ask, What is it I have to pay for?
How about letting go of everything that wasn’t honest in your life. How big a sacrifice it will be depends on how much you carelessly or purposefully lied. On the upside, you will gain a lot of new freedoms to construct a new life that is based upon truthfulness.
Do you want reality on your side or not?
Beware of massacres
There is one more lesson that can be learned from honest behavior. Despite full commitment to truthfulness, it sometimes might seem that no matter whether you lie or tell the truth, the outcome will be bad in just different ways. Sometimes there is no right decision, or as Leonard Cohen put it “There is no decent place to stand in a massacre”.
When life presents itself as a dilemma, it is a sign to wrestle with the bigger system. That is because the power of honesty mainly works, if the fundamental structure of your reality is not absolutely corrupt. For example, if you lived in an authoritarian state, speaking your honest opinion could lead to an actual cost of censorship, imprisonment, or even the death penalty.
As individuals of society, we therefore have two crucial tasks when it comes to speech. The first is adhering to your own morals by being honest, but the second, untrendy in today’s culture, is the protection of free speech on a political level.
So if truth threatens to reveal a deeper problem, it is not giving us the permission to lie, but rather a problem we need to solve by remaining honest and simultaneously addressing the issue on a more fundamental level. A good question to always ask is “How did we come to this place? Can we go back? Can we at least avoid such paths in the future?”
Another wisdom that can be drawn is from the phenomenon of shame. If you accept the premise that you are in charge of your own life, then shame is an indicator of your own past mistakes that you could have improved earlier if you had been more honest with yourself.
That way, honesty can be used as a great productivity hack. Do you struggle to decide what to work on? Ask yourself where you fear honest criticism. And when you work on it, judge your process but how much it alleviates that fear.
Fearing the truth is the sign to take on more responsibility.
“There is only one way to salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.”~ Fyodor Dostoevsky
A call to adventure
To live a meaningful life starts by shaping your thoughts and words in a meaningful manner. In order to talk honestly, you have to let go of what you want and replace it with a hypothesis of faith: “It doesn’t matter what I want because I don’t even know what I should want.”
Tell the truth and don’t let lies possess you.
Tell the truth and let everything happen that comes as a consequence of it.
Tell the truth and your soul will be so indestructible and fearless that your life will truly become the biggest adventure you cannot die in.
“Be afraid, but be afraid of the right thing. And the right thing you should be afraid of is not saying what you think because that is the same as not being. And here you are – suffering away. You might as well be at the same time. At least then there is something to you.”~ Jordan Peterson