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Musings

It’s been said before, from time to time, that each of us are different people.  That our true self is a combination of the various people we are.  The thinker.  The worker.  The husband, wife, brother, sister.  The day-to-day superficial us.  The deeper, mostly hidden us.  All these and more combine to make the whole person that each of us is.

One of the questions I’ve been returning to from time to time is, “what is the difference between having an ordinary experience and having a spiritual one?”  What is the quality that being moved to tears by grief, love, or joy has that simply enjoying a party, a nice glass of wine, or a back rub, doesn’t?

I don’t think we can isolate and capture the answer to that question – this isn’t science.  I’m not asking a psychological or neurological question here, I’m asking a spiritual one. And while we’re on that subject, while the scientific answer to that question may be absolutely correct in its own way and worth knowing, you can’t answer a spiritual question with a scientific answer, or vice versa. It’s really about whether we’re looking for the “external” answer or the “internal” one. Since it’s the “internal” answers I seek, we will leave the external one for someone else for now.

I think the spiritual answer that makes sense to me to this question of the difference between the profound and the ordinary comes down to the people that we are. I think that there is a deep self within all of us – perhaps even a deepest self. Though a rare few live with that self on top – people like perhaps the Dalai Lama – most of us live with our deep self buried deep under all the other people we think we are.

Yet in special moments our other selves move aside and our deep self is brought up into us. Moments of clarity and moments of resonance. Our joyous moments, loving moments, even our despairing moments. Times when we don’t just feel, we feel. When we are pierced through, whether we are lifted or broken by the experience.

So maybe that’s the answer – or at least all the answer that we need.  There may be many selves within us, but it’s our deep self that is the core of our heart and spirit.  The rest of the cacophony in our heads may be useful or an obstacle, depending on the voice and the occasion.

But I’d wager that recognizing and embracing our deep self is the first step in “getting right” with the cosmos – and with ourselves.  And that in so doing, we put our foot firmly on our spiritual path.

I look forward to embracing the idea of the deep self further, and I am excited to see where it takes us.

We human beings have a lot of ways to connect with each other and communicate.  A wry smile, a slumped posture, a playful tickle, and avoiding eye contact all communicate different things to those around us. Obviously, seeing someone bouncily putting the dishes away as they whistle a sprightly tune sends a whole different message than someone who is scowling while moving in sharp jerky motions and slamming drawers.

But in spite of these many avenues, language remains the base method to interact with each other, to share ideas, to wrangle through our differences and find common ground. These words I’m typing are full proof of that.

However, language may be the best tool we have, but it still has issues. There are many ways for us to miscommunicate. Of all the ways in which we fail to accurately communicate, the most common mistake in my experience is the scourge of Ambiguity – an embracement of imprecision or fuzzy thinking, sometimes accidental, sometimes lazy, sometimes quite on purpose.

You see, we all know that many of the words we use have different meanings. “Dust”, for example, can mean to remove dust, as in “the maid dusted the bannister”, but it can also mean to add dust or powder, as in “the chef dusted the cookies with sugar”. Although it would be hard for us to confuse those two, there are many other words with multiple meanings that are a lot less easily distinguished, but are nonetheless not at all the same.

Take the word “wet”. Even when only considering the descriptive uses of that word, there are many close but different ways to use “wet” to describe something.  Here are just a few examples of the thirteen I found looking up “wet” as an adjective:

  • moistened, covered, or soaked with water or some other liquid: His hands were wet.
  • in a liquid form or state: The paint was still wet.
  • allowing or favoring the sale of alcoholic beverages: Since Jackson was a wet town, he went there to buy beer.

…and so on.

Usually we instinctively try to figure out which “wet” people mean from the context, but if I told you the bench was “wet”, would I mean that it was recently painted or that it had simply rained recently?

When it comes to deep and nuanced conversations – such as all those we have when talking about things like values, spirituality, meaning, and truth – we run into this problem all the time!  Many (perhaps even most) of these complex words have multiple meanings, each shaded slightly but significantly differently.

As a very brief example, let’s just scratch the surface of the multiple ways to use the word “faith”.  There are many very different meanings for that word in any dictionary.

Let’s say there’s a fellow who wants to chuck the Covenant and get as many people as he can agreeing with him that it’s a good thing to believe whatever you like, regardless of whether it’s rational.  This zealous fellow asks, “Isn’t faith a good thing?  After all, don’t we have faith in each other, and in our community? Don’t we have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow?  Faith is the natural response of humankind – so my faith that Zeus will carry me to Olympus when I die is perfectly fine, right?”

This is the scourge of Ambiguity in full attack.  Because one of the meanings of “faith” is trust, and because we of course want to trust our fellow humans, we tend to react positively to the use of that word.

However, one other use of the word is “belief that is not based on proof”. So if we aren’t paying attention, we just got conned into agreeing that faith-belief is good practice simply because we think that faith-trust is!

This isn’t always done on purpose.  The fellow above trying to defend his faith that Zeus is real?  He may not even be aware that he is pushing Ambiguity at all – he may just think it makes sense to him.  Thus even those who use and push Ambiguity don’t necessarily know that that is what they are doing!

It happens all the time, with all manner of high-impact words that many people use in significantly different ways – “good”, “justice”, “honorable”, “common”, “freedom” just to name a tiny few.

Perhaps this post wasn’t directly on the topic of spirituality, but it was smack dab center on the topic of avoiding miscommunication. Nothing turns a conversation into a tragedy faster than Ambiguity, especially when it passes undetected – that just means it blows up later, or worse yet, instead of exploding, it quietly poisons one’s thoughts with imprecision and flawed thinking.

The connections and interactions amongst us and our conversations are key to the core of spirituality I believe.  Guarding against this most common and most dangerous of scourges is paramount if we value clarity – or each other. So let’s embrace precision in what we say, and demand precision in what others say as well. It’s up to us to pay enough attention to our conversations to be able to root out the hidden Ambiguities before they are abused, accidentally or not.

And always, always, always make sure that no such pitfalls are hidden in your conversations – because even if all participants are sincere, sometimes the language isn’t!

I was going to write about something else for this post.  I was going to delve into the way people so easily accuse each other of “disrespecting” them and how as far as I can see, making that accusation is itself nothing less than the attack of one person on another.

I think the Christians have a saying – or maybe it’s the Jews – that man plans, and god laughs.  While that is a bit of a cruel vision, perhaps that’s what makes it so ironically appropriate.

I think one measure of our humanity is our (for lack of a better word) vulnerability. Our ability to be touched.  I’m not saying that you have to weep at the drop of a hat or be always on the edge of a nervous breakdown to be a human being – but I think our humanity is about what cuts through everything else and touches our soul.

I had two such moments this morning, for no particular reason other than they just happened.

I was waking up, and some stray thought made me think of the musical Man of La Mancha.  Being a huge fan of that particular musical, I lounged in bed this morn and revisited via the ‘net it’s songs and story.

Everyone who reads these words, I do believe, should see this – either again or for the first time.  If you can’t see it performed live, there is at least one film version I know of. The centerpiece of the epic is the song “To Dream the Impossible Dream” – and it’s this impossible dream that has the power to tranform (in the story) a wretched and abused prostitute into the lady she always was, and a hopeless mob of vicious prisoners into an inspired band of comrades.  And the story doesn’t hand wave over these transformations, it earns them.

The musical and film have touched me deeply. They do not provide me answers – in many ways, they challenge a lot that I hold dear.  But their truth is too obvious, too personal to be ignored or devalued.  Watching either the film or the musical brings me at several points to tears.  And even just recalling the experience, the musical’s truth this morning brought me to tears as well.

That’s true power.  Not the faux machismo of strutting and pretending to be invulnerable.  The musical’s power to force us to feel it’s truth – and my power to be willing to in that moment let it consume me with it’s pain and hope, to let it break me and remake me, to surrender to it and weep.

My second moment followed on the first moment closely.  Honestly, the connection may not have been profound – it may have been the sounds of Man of La Mancha (which, by the way, I never played outside of my head this morn) that led me to another powerful experience that I think many people know. I’m speaking of the song “Fix You” by Coldplay.

“Fix You” has beauty and grace, and it’s too obvious to just say that and move on, that truth should be dwelled on for a moment. The story is that Chris Martin wrote it for his partner Gwyneth Paltrow (the actress) when upon the death of her father, he was at a loss on how he could console her.

But that’s just why it was written.  The best songs and stories aren’t just about what the author intends, they are about what the listener hears.  I saw one person say that what they got from the song was 9/11 and it’s aftermath – comparing the killing of Bin Laden as getting what we want, but not what we need.

Perhaps the the essential truths of these human pinnacles, these songs, musical, stories, is that they are true for each of us in our own way while connecting us universally at the same time.

All I know is that for the second time this morning, I was again racked with sadness and tears.

It’s not (I think) that I am depressed – I’m not elated, but at this moment, I am not down in general – the cloudburst of these two moments was immediately followed by a calm stillness and the sun returned.  Nor do I think I am particularly overly emotional (ask my family that and they might laugh!), although to the folks pretending to be as untouchable as stone perhaps I seem so.  And I don’t think it’s just manipulative chords and verbal melodrama – this wasn’t fake profundity, unless it’s all fake profundity, and I cannot believe that.

I think what touches me the deepest is how things like these speak to the shared plight of the fragile human condition.  I think that’s ultimately what’s going on here – empathy and meaningful sentiment.  Being open to the pain of others, to our own pain, to the pain of all – and in a way, that’s what our saints and saviors do – they take all our pain into themselves, to try to lessen ours – or at least share it if lessening is not possible.

Our shared plight – and everyone I believe shares in the plight of being human. I will never say that we privileged first world citizens have it anywhere near as badly as the truly destitute and abandoned across the planet. But that does not take from even the most privileged their pain and hurt, their feelings of being alone or afraid. So even though we can appreciate that there’s someone out there that has it much worse than we do, than our friends and family do, that doesn’t subtract one iota of loss or suffering that any of us feel.

Pain is real, even if we scoff at it’s source.  We shouldn’t.  It doesn’t matter that we think that the teenager who says her heart is broken has it so much better than a kid the same age in Asia, working in a sweatshop every day. Everyone’s suffering is real – as attested by the countless numbers of teens who “had it so much better” that still kill themselves.

Maybe in the end, if we focus on our shared plight, and not on who deserves to be permitted to feel pain, we will be the better people we were supposed to be.

All I know is I remembered Man of La Mancha – and the memory brought me briefly to tears.  And a little later I listened to Fix You, and was touched again.

If we could all have, from time to time, moments of vulnerable compassion and empathy, and chose to surrender to feeling deeply, we could begin to build a world and be a people that we truly deserve.

Don’t you agree?

Long time, no see, how’s everyone doing?

I’ve been absent – obviously.  And while I could delve into the myriad of life annoyances and unpleasant surprises, let’s skip right over all of that to simply say that there were two connected salient reasons for my absence: the previous line of thought had (for the moment) run it’s course, and a new one hadn’t yet arisen.

But now it has.

Seems that one of the questions I asked; “Can the Covenant foundation be a belief system all by itself without needing to add anything further” may be perhaps answered “no” in that I took that idea as far as it made sense to take it, and yet it did not become in and of itself a fully realized path of spirituality.

Which is not to say that the Covenant is any less critical or mandatory.  Maybe, from a certain perspective, it functions like the myth of Jesus – many belief systems can partake of it, but what makes each spirituality unique is what they do with it and beyond it.

And that’s where I am now.  I embrace the Covenant deep in my bones.  But that alone does not make for me a path to follow.  So where do I go from here?

Well, I can’t really say I have that all figured out yet, but I do have some glimmerings, some  thoughts pulling on my spirit.  You see, I’ve been trying to figure out what to call myself when people ask me what I believe.  I am an atheist, but that is as descriptive as if I had said that I am an a-santa-clausist.  All “atheist” says is what I don’t believe – it doesn’t say why I am an atheist, nor does it say what I do believe in and embrace.

The label “atheist” also hides the fact that I am a very spiritual and passionate person, even if I don’t partake of the supernatural.  I am an atheist, sure, but using that as the best label of my spirituality is entirely missing every point.  It’s like one person asking “What do you believe in?” and the second person replying “Not Buddha!” – it just really fails to answer the question.

So then, what am I?  What’s the best way to acknowledge and celebrate my true spirituality?  What is my true spirituality to begin with?

I think this is my new journey now.  I went on (and wrote about) my first journey discovering and detailing the Covenant,  a base foundation for all rational people of any belief.  Now I begin work on what comes next for me personally.

So here we go.  As before, expect me to stumble, to fall, to get back up, to head down blind alleys before reversing course and picking up the path again.  This is a spiritual maze, but I can hear the call, and I am very excited to be beginning the journey again anew.

Thanks for coming with me.

Beginnings are tricky things, times of great caution and precision. So it is with a new spiritual path.

The question is, spiritually, what am I? What is calling me? The only way I know how to discover the answers is to peel away the layers until I get to the truth at the center.

My heart believes in the sacredness of truth. That is not to say I condemn lies – sometimes, not to lie is itself irrational, such as when the soldier asks you if you are hiding Anne Frank, and you are. Holding the truth sacred isn’t about always speaking it – although that is always preferred – it is about knowing the truth, and more importantly, being unwilling to use that term to lightly.

The sacredness of truth also means turning my back on absolute certainty. A person who is absolutely certain can no longer learn new things. And everyone who has been wrong has had moments before that discovery where certainty was felt – right before it was dashed.

I guess for me, it’s not ultimately about what I believe, it about how I believe. It’s about the journey more than it’s about the destination. It’s about being willing to submit oneself to embracing whatever the search for truth reveals, instead of deciding what to believe and then looking for ways to justify it.

The process of truth is what makes actual truth. If I follow the path of truth, then wherever it leads is the right place, the correct ideas, the accurate facts, the sacred truth. It’s not at all about what one belives, it’s utterly about how one seeks in the first place.

So I guess I am a seeker. I embrace a mixture of feelings and reason – feelings to reveal to me what matters to me, what I am pulled toward or repulsed from, and reason to guide me in understanding the world and and my choices within it.

To put another way, reason is the GPS – but a GPS is useless without a destination. Our feelings give us that destination.

I have heard many labels applied to people like this. Atheists – which as I addressed in the last post, is utterly incomplete a term for this use. Skeptic – which is better, but not much. Freethinkers. Secular humanists. Brights. Each of those labels have issues in my opinion.

The closest I can come of existing terms is perhaps “rationalist”. After all, what fills me up is the desire to follow the rational path, and to repudiate all irrational choices and acts.

And by “irrational” I want to be clear, I am not speaking of emotionally based decisions. As I just said, I believe emotions and feelings give us our north star, our motivations, our goals – and that is also rational. An irrational act or choice is one that goes much further than that, it’s the embrace of allowing one’s emotion to overule one’s reason – or vice versa – inappropriately. Telling oneself that smoking isn’t unhealthy because that’s easier than facing the truth that it is, is irrational – just like driving north when your GPS tells you to drive south (all other things being equal) is also irrational. Likewise, picking a flavor of ice cream at random because you want to pretend that your preferences for flavor are irrelevant is equally irrational – it’s just that people tend to corrupt their reasoning to serve their short-term emotional needs far, far more often than they do the reverse.

So “rationalist” is a good term, but it too has some problems, two I can point out right now. One, it has a very specific use in philosophy that isn’t necessarily exactly a spiritual belief system. Two, a bigger problem, is comes off as extremely dry, academic, and very non-spiritual.

My belief system, whatever it winds up getting called, is not dry to me. It is not academic. It’s not passionless. For me, it is alive, vibrant, joyful, and wondrous!

What shall I call it? I don’t have a really good answer to that yet, and that bothers me. The Seeking? The Journey? What should the adherents be called? Seekers? Journeymen (and women)? Methodists? (Kidding!)

Another option is to use the term “rationalists” but to add a modifier that bring back in the passion, the spirituality, that makes it its own thing.

Perhaps a Devout Rationalist from the Rational Path?

What do you think?

Or to be more accurate, what is driving this thing?  Now that I have started a new journey to more clearly hear the calling of my heart, to better discern the spirituality that has always been calling me, I am trying to squint and make out its brush strokes, its outline.  A belief system is primarily embodied through its core precepts and principles.  What are mine?

I suspect that this will be an ongoing conversation, an investigation that lasts the full length of this second journey.  It seems likely to me that if and when the time comes when I can answer that question with confidence and completeness, I will have attained my current goal of knowing, understanding, and being able to well describe my spirituality.  This is my current journey.

But this post isn’t that – we’re nowhere near any kind of final formulation.  This is the opposite end of this journey.  This is the time for wondering aloud, for musing, for throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

As such, please don’t expect this first part to be well developed, well ordered, or thought through.  This is the chaotic messy part from which comes order.  It’s like cleaning up a room – things have to get more messy before we can get things all back together.

So let me begin with some “stream of consciousness” initial thoughts – a starting point for me to add or remove ideas, try on different thoughts for size, and generally explore.  Again, the goal ultimately will be to sort out and discover the core precepts of the spirituality which calls to me.  Much of what I bring forth may wind up being part of my belief system, but not everything I consider will wind up being kept as a core precept or principle if it ultimately turn out to be a consequence of a deeper and/or higher piece.

Since this preamble post is already not short, let me end here for now.  I will plan for my next post (perhaps later today) to be the first brain dump of thoughts as to what could possibly be core to my spirituality.

OK, here’s the brain dump I promised – the first one anyways. I am going to try to hold back and not analyze or over examine these – this is just the first collection attempt. I will however try to take a little time to better explain them, so everyone (including myself) knows exactly what I mean.

The truth is sacred. This doesn’t mean that one should never lie – sometimes a power inequity forces one to decide whether to tell the truth and thereby give someone ammunition to use against you or someone you care about, or to lie and protect someone (possibly yourself) from unjust consequences. The classic example which I alluded to recently is the Anne Frank one: if in WWII you were hiding Anne Frank in your house, and a Nazi soldier knocks on the door and asks if she is there, are you obligated to answer honestly? Of course not! Of course, it’s generally preferential to be honest – and it’s mandatory that one be honest with oneself.

Two other consequences of the truth being sacred: one must never claim or pretend to know that which one does not know, and one must also be ready and willing to sacrifice each and every truth one currently holds if evidence or reasoning calls it into doubt. To put another way: Be slow to claim truth, but quick to question – both others and yourself!

Finally, always keep in mind that something isn’t considered true unless all the evidence mandates it. It is never enough to show that something could be true, unless something is shown to be necessarily true believing it isn’t justified.

Pragmatic choices are the most effective. It’s all about results. As they say, spit in one hand and hope in the other, and I will tell you which hand has more in it. This is utterly not to say that we ought to be ruthless, or that we have to give up hope, or that the end justifies the means. This is only to say we need to be realistic, and try to face the world and our choices within it as they really are. It’s all well and good to stand on principle, but what good are we doing those principles if our choices accomplish nothing or worse?

I think it boils down to this: instead of asking whether the choices we make are in line with our desires, it is more practical and more effective to instead ask if the true consequences of our choices are in line with our desires. If not, we need to make different choices.

Our duty to each other is to try to lessen each person’s suffering and increase their wellbeing. This is a reformulation of the idea of Noblesse Oblige, that those who are doing better should take care of those who are doing worse, and act to help them. It means that we need to take whatever steps necessary to make sure people have shelter, food, water, medical support, and a rudimentary quality of life – and that we don’t seek to shame them in the process.

There is nothing wrong with there being super-rich people who bathe in caviar and who drive gold Mercedes provided that the poor, the needy, the wretched, are attended to first. But to have some of us thoughtlessly enjoy a life of privilege while others starve, or remain sick and untreated (emergency rooms do not treat cancer, don’t forget), or are otherwise suffering – that is selfish to the point of monstrosity.

And note that I said “whatever steps necessary”. This means that if private charities are handling the full burden of this duty, great – but if not, we do not shrug our shoulders and say, “Too bad.” No, even though it might be a last resort, if necessary we instruct our government take what is needed from the people who have more than they need to help those who lack the basics.

Responsible Freedom. I want to be crystal clear, this isn’t a la carte here. Freedom alone, without responsibility or any other guiding principles is little more than rampant selfishness. Freedom without respect for the truth, without a practical approach, and especially without compassion and duty to others is a recipe for a “Lord of the Flies” situation, where the morally challenged among us do horrible things to the disempowered masses to gather as much power and money as possible. This is capitalism run amok. Without other guiding principles, this turns any government into a soulless corporatocracy – the like US today. And, to the best of my knowledge, this concept of wild-west no-holds-barred ugly competition is the beating heart of the Randian Libertarians.

But although I do not for one moment embrace that kind of irresponsible freedom where anything goes, make no mistake, the cause of responsible freedom is near and dear to my heart. True freedom is not about making sure that we can evade all the responsibilities we have to one another. It’s about tolerance for all but the intolerant and options for just about everybody.

I embrace the freedom that says that anyone can do whatever they like, so long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s right to do the same, and so long as they are still embrace the other principles above as well. I embrace the freedom that says that anyone can be whoever they like, so long as they do not turn their back on their fellow human in their hour of need. I embrace the freedom that says that we must accept – or at least tolerate – other people’s choices and ways, even if we do not find them palatable, so long as they cause no demonstrable infringement on any non-consenting adult.

The true soul of actual freedom, when you get right down to it, is not about making sure that I am free from others, it’s making sure that others are free from me. It’s not about telling other people to change their behavior to suit me, it’s about all of us embracing our obligation to change our own behavior to not inflict our preferences, choices, or prejudices on others.

The true soul of freedom is our shared duty to each other to tolerate and stay out of each other’s way, not some kind of cudgel we can use to justify any behavior, no matter how selfish.

Freedom is an attractive idea, but like most key concepts, it is used to mean a lot of different things, some of which are truly heinous. Freedom is only earned, however, when used responsibly. Freedom only lives when it’s a duty we work hard to make sure we respect in others and grant to all, rather than a privilege we are trying to grasp just for ourselves.

Alright, that’s all I have for right now. Are there other things needed beyond the above? Or are any of the above better combined into one? Not sure, let’s see where this goes.

OK, back on track, before I go further, I think I need to address the invisible elephant in the room. My first principle of the four base ones I came up with here was: The truth is sacred.  That must mean that your should always tell the truth, and never lie, right? Wrong.

Of course, a lie can be justified in terms of doing good for others.  The example I used before was a Nazi soldier asking you if you are hiding Anne Frank, and you are. Of course you would lie to him (if you thought he would believe it.)  But that’s OK because you’re lying to a bad person who wants to do bad things.

But let me paint another picture.  Suppose you’re a working single mother.  You normally send your kids to school and go to your job – but this time not only is the young one sick and in need of care, but your normal go-to emergency babysitter you call for situations like these can’t be reached.  Worse yet, your boss just gave a big speech yesterday about how no one was going to get “special treatment” for “family reasons” when it comes to attendance – you actually know that your boss wouldn’t hesitate to fire you if you call in without what he would call an excusable absence.  So you do what every other person does in this circumstance, you lie and call in sick.

Or another example, let’s say that you don’t believe at all in astrology, but during the job interview your interviewer asks you what your sign is, and generally begins to try to engage you in conversations about how you, an Aries, would be perfect for this position.  You really need this job though, so you lie and agree with him.

Quite a few people would be shocked and outraged by at least a few of these choices. “You should never lie,” they say. “Honesty is the best policy. Lying by omission is still lying, and even more so if you speak falsehood.” You can probably guess that I don’t feel that way – but if one of my most important principles is truth, isn’t that a contradiction?

No – and this is why.  You should always be honest with yourself. That is my principle. Never lie to yourself, never seek to delude yourself, never hide from uncomfortable truths within your mind.

But you are never required to put yourself at disadvantage or risk of harm in order to tell the truth to others. There are some very good reasons for being truthful most of the time, which I will enumerate in a bit, but first, let’s pop the balloon right now why everyone preaches honesty – but then goes ahead and lies when it suits them anyways.

It really boils down to one simple fact: information is power. If you can convince someone to tell you the truth, even when it is not in their best interest to do so, then you have the option of exerting power and influence over them. Take the sick child example above: if you tell your unsympathetic boss that you’re sick and must stay home, there’s not much he can probably do about that, so long as he doesn’t catch you in the lie, like at the movies later. However, if you mistakenly feel you have to be honest all the time, and you tell him that you know it’s not allowed, but that you have to stay home with your kid today – you have just handed him the power to decide what happens next. Sure, you may get a warm fuzzy patting yourself on the back for being honest, but when he fires you and you can’t get another job and you are frantic to find a way to keep feeding your kid, you may not value that warm fuzzy quite so much.

In the next post (since this one is so long) I will tell you why, even with all the above being true, you should still probably only lie very sparingly.  There are some very good reasons to almost never lie.  But “almost never” is not the same thing as “never”.

When push comes to shove, and the time comes where being honest would put you at disadvantage or risk, and you think you can get away with a lie of some kind, if you want to make the rational choice, consider telling the lie.

Except to me of course, tell me the honest truth always. You can trust me to never have a different opinion from you about what to do with the sensitive information you just shared with me – can’t you?

Right?

This was going to be the follow-up article to this one, in which I was going to explain that while it may not be rational to be absolutely honest all the time, it is rational to be generally honest most of the time. Then I realized that as much as I demonstrated the necessity of occasional dishonesty in that last post, there were two things I didn’t do that need doing, both of them spiritual. I did not illustrate that sometimes lying isn’t just defensible, but morally right. I also didn’t call out the “honesty pushers” for their vile and repugnant position.

It’s time to get emotional.

(Note this very well: “getting emotional” is not equivalent to getting irrational. Emotion is passion, fire, excitement. Unbound, it is quite irrational, but in its proper place, quite rational. While many fall victim to unbridled emotionality, my weakness is the reverse – I get so intellectual and in my head I get disconnected from the passion that is actually a core spiritual component. Human beings are not and can not be logic-based alone, we also need to embrace our passion – just so long as it doesn’t derail us and make us act contrary to reason. In the last post, I didn’t bring the fire, which I hope to rectify in this one.)

There are really two types of dishonesty, I think. There’s factual dishonesty and personal dishonesty. Factual dishonesty is when you misrepresent a situation to cause or permit someone else to have a false picture of the situation. Personal dishonesty is when you engender a false understanding in another about who you are as a person. So factual dishonesty is saying you’re sick when you are really not. Personal dishonesty is saying that you believe in god when you really don’t. What makes them different? Put simply, personal dishonesty is isolating and bit by bit removes chances for people to get to know you and to have a real relationship with you. Factual dishonesty is lying about (for example) what you do, but personal dishonesty is lying about who you are.

And yet both are, in the right circumstances, the moral thing to do. Because you are never morally required to suffer for someone else’s purpose.

Let’s say that you are doing research at a library in a town you happen to be in while traveling, and after leaving find that you have left your wallet there. When you drive back to get it, you see that they are locking up for the day. The librarian starts to tell you that it’s too late and you will have to come back tomorrow – and even though you tell them that it won’t be possible, the librarian does not budge. Suddenly they think they recognize you as an acquaintance they know from church. Their manner changes, and they are about to let you in to get your wallet. You have a plane flight in two hours – do you tell the librarian that you are not Fred from church, or do you smile, get in, and get your wallet in time to make your flight? Do you owe this person your honesty, even though being honest with them means that you will miss your flight without the ID in your missing wallet? Especially when they have already proven to you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that being honest with them has no chance to succeed in getting you your wallet in time?

Sometimes the moral thing to do is to not harm yourself when you do not deserve it. And if someone else cannot be trusted to make the moral choice, then they also cannot be trusted with absolute honesty.

Now there are some very good reasons in different circumstances to be honest even when it causes oneself unpleasant or even harmful consequences. If this was a library in your hometown and you wanted to use it a lot, damaging your relationship with the person running it might be long-term worse for you than simply missing a flight. And if this is your hometown, people know people, so if it gets out that you lied to the town librarian, there may be people who would judge you for it, and that has consequences too. Furthermore, if you lie to this person, you may be damaging your opportunity to have a real relationship or friendship with them. So, depending on the circumstance, you may find that even though being honest has unhappy consequences, being dishonest might have worse consequences. Often that is the case.

But occasionally, from time to time, you may find that it is actually in your best interest to be dishonest. If you live in Boston, but find yourself stuck in Detroit having left your wallet in a library that is closing, and the only way you can get your wallet from the librarian in time to make your flight home is to let them think that you belong to their church, then do it. You won’t be any less of a morally upright person then you were before, because not all lies are wrong. Lying to unfairly take advantage of someone is wrong, sure, but lying to get someone to do the right thing, or to stop them from doing bad things, is utterly justified. It is right. And anyone who tells you otherwise does not have your best interests at heart – but we will come back to those nasty people in a bit.

Of course, the above scenario is about factual dishonesty, what about personal dishonesty? Is it OK to lie to the people you know about who you are?

It’s not only OK in the right circumstances, it’s morally required.

Scenario #2: You live in the United States, in the deep and religious South in 1963. You are twenty-three. You have a big family, brothers and sisters, a loving mother and father, aunts and uncle, the whole nine yards. Every Sunday the whole family goes to church together, even though you and your brother and sisters now live on your own, you are all living in the same town and all stay connected. And whenever the whole family gets together for dinner, which happens often, the meal doesn’t start until everyone joins hands and says Grace – and seems to mean it. Jesus and religion are a huge part of everyone’s life.

To make matters worse, a hippie type has just moved into town, a self-proclaimed atheist (and socialist) and the town is up in arms against him. The hippie is not backing down, going so far at to try to “preach” Enlightenment from the town square. Your family is shocked and outraged, making it clear that they consider this person to be less than human.

The problem is, you just discovered that you are an atheist. Now, do you “come out” to your family? Do you let them know how you really feel? Do you refuse to participate in Grace and Sunday church? Or do you embrace dishonesty and fake it?

It’s true that the decision to lie about who you are to the people closest to you is a much more serious decision than to lie to a stranger about something far more inconsequential. It’s true that if you deny your closest friends and family a chance to really know who you are that you are putting up invisible obstacles between you, making it that much harder to be connected to them.

But it may also be true that if you tell them a truth that they cannot be trusted to handle well, that you could be rejected and frozen out entirely – which would be quite possibly a much bigger loss than simply having an unknown untruth between you. And they could do much worse to you than ostracize you – though that’s pretty bad. They could turn on you completely, spreading word of your unnatural beliefs, making sure that no one will hire you or treat you decently – not hard in a place where what you feel is looked at as tantamount to evil, even though it’s not. They might even convince themselves that they are doing these horrible things to you because they love you, and that this is the only way you’ll get better.

You don’t think that there’s just a chance this will happen. You don’t think that it is only likely. You’ve been watching and you are pretty sure that the excrement will hit the fan big time.

So, honesty at all costs, or do you protect yourself from some really evil consequences by being dishonest? Even if it’s to the people closest to you about a core part of who you are as a person?

Let me repeat: you are never morally required to suffer for someone else’s purpose. If someone will unjustifiably cause you pain or grief when you are honest with them about something, then unless it suits your larger goals, don’t be honest with them about the matter.

Morality isn’t just about treating other people fairly – it’s also about treating yourself fairly too. And if people are going to punish you unjustly for your honesty, then they do not deserve your honesty.

Which brings us to the last piece of this: honesty pushers. What’s an honesty pusher?

Someone who says that dishonesty is never justified, that lying is always bad or immoral. Someone who says that you owe everyone honesty, even people who would punish you for it. Someone who says that no matter the personal cost to you, you must self-martyr in the name of honesty.

This person may mean well – but that is entirely irrelevant. Everyone means well – including the crusaders of Europe’s dark ages and those who burned witches in Salem. Even slave owners can claim to have meant well – and some of them were probably sincere. But utterly wrong.

Someone who wants you to be honest in all circumstances despite how much it may hurt you is someone who values your wellbeing less than their own personal crusade. And when push comes to shove, I’ll bet you anything that most of these folks engage in the occasional lie anyways – and if caught and called on it, will shout until they’re blue in the face how their dishonesty doesn’t count as dishonesty.

Cultures promote honesty for many reasons – one of which is that most of the time it is the best thing to embrace. But there are only two kinds of people who promote absolute honest always. Those on a personal crusade which takes precedence over your well-being. And those who secretly have no issue with dishonesty – as long as they are the ones doing it. Ones who wants everyone else to be honest with them – so that when they choose their moments of dishonesty, they have more power and influence. Ones seeking an unfair advantage, basically.

But whether the honesty-pusher is a crusader or just unscrupulous, it is they that are morally bereft. Pay them no mind. Be honest with everyone that earns it. Be honest with those who make it safe, not those who make it risky and dangerous. And if you choose to be dishonest with someone because it would unfairly cause you risk or harm, do not feel one whit of condemnation – save your condemnation for those that created the situation in which your honesty would harm you!

Now, with any luck, the next post will be about why, even though you do not owe everyone your absolute honesty all the time, it’s still a good idea to be pretty honest most of the time. See you there!

 

Alright, people who read my last two posts (here and here) superficially may have thought I was saying “lie, lie, lie, cheat, cheat, cheat” – but nothing could be further from the truth. My main points really were these:

  • Sometimes, even if one wants to be honest, circumstances may dictate that choosing to mislead is a better choice for your well-being than choosing to be utterly honest.
  • People who tell you to be honest even when that would be very bad for you are obviously less concerned with your well-being then some other agenda that they have.
  • One should not be expected to be honest when the environment is utterly hostile to the truth you would say. Or to put another way, part of asking other people to be honest with us is making a safe environment for them to do so.

So, after talking about when dishonesty may be justified, when then should one be honest?

Almost all the time.

However, before I can explain why, this is the perfect time to really dig deep into what it means to be honest or dishonest.

Dishonesty is when one person acts on the intention of misleading someone else. It doesn’t matter what the method is – commission, omission, body language – if one interacts with another purposefully in such a way as to mislead them, then that is being dishonest.

Fundamentally, then, dishonesty is a result of deception. When one intends to deceive another, one is being dishonest – whether it is justified or not, appropriate or not. And when one is dishonest, one is trying to deceive.

What about honesty – is being honest then simply not being dishonest? Or does it go further than that? Can you not consider yourself honest if you do not share every detail that another would want to know, or is shunning deception enough to consider oneself as honest?

Take for example the following situation: On your lunch break from work, you ran into a client, had a brief conversation, then ran into a friend and had a much longer conversation, losing track of the time. When you saw how late it was, you jumped in your car to rush back to work, but then get stopped for speeding. Finally arriving back at work, your boss – who hates speeders – confronts you and asks why you were late.

Obviously, you could spill your guts, tell your boss everything, and hope it works out. Such an act would be considered honest by all. But what of the following choices?

  1. I got back earlier, I was just working in the back where you didn’t see me.” An out and out lie, deceptive and completely dishonest.
  2. I saw a client at lunch and we chatted.” While technically a true fact, your intent is to mislead your boss into thinking that it was your dutiful conversation with a client of the firm that was what made you late. Mislead = deception = dishonest.
  3. I had car trouble.” Also technically true (you had trouble because your car was going too fast), but since the obvious intent is still to cause your boss to falsely believe you had broken down, dishonest.
  4. Or you could say, sarcastically, rolling your eyes, “Boss – I got in trouble with the LAW! I’m a lawbreaker, a rebel!” Again, technically you are telling the truth, but in such a way as to strongly imply that you are just kidding and that the words you say are not to be believed. The intent is to mislead, and therefor this is dishonest.
  5. I ran into a friend, we got to talking, and I lost track of the time.” If spending so much time with your friend is what caused you to speed, then even though you haven’t shared all the gory details, neither are you attempting to deceive your boss about the true cause of your lateness. Not dishonest.
  6. I got waylaid by a private, non-work related issue, and I take full responsibility for it – it won’t happen again.” Not especially forthcoming – but not dishonest either.
  7. Alternatively, you could offer a non-answer, “Man, where does the time go? Sorry – won’t happen again.” You didn’t answer his question about why you were late, but it’s not a mislead either. Not dishonest.

Ultimately, it’s about deception – if you are trying to deceive someone, then you are being dishonest. If you are not, then you cannot be called dishonest. So the first four are dishonest, and the last three are not. Are the last three honest, though?

Remember, honesty does not necessarily imply approval, just like dishonesty shouldn’t necessarily imply disapproval, so the question about whether the last three qualify as “honest” has nothing to do with whether we approve of them or not – it has nothing to do with good or bad, or right or wrong at all. The question is merely about what the word “honest” means. Is the only use of that word reserved for those who unflinchingly reveal everything that they think another would want to know? Can one not consider oneself honest simply because one won’t bare one’s soul?

A dictionary won’t help us here, since “honest” has many definitions and shades of meaning, so I am going to tell you what I mean when I say the word, and that is what it will mean on this blog.

Honest to me means “free from fraud or deception”. It doesn’t have to mean a full confession where you cop to everything someone else wants to find out. It just means not trying to deceive.

So if you ask me, choices 5 through 7, while not the whole truth, are in fact honest answers because they contain no deception.

So, now that we have fully outlined dishonesty and honesty, the next step is to illustrate just why it is a good idea to be honest almost always. Since this post is already quite substantial, let’s do that in the next one.