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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Trouble with the Truth

“Truth is often difficult to distinguish, it can be a gift or a burden. It can be kind or cruel. It frequently eludes our grasp. We find it difficult to describe. Truth, at times, can hide so well, that we can’t find it to save ourselves. Or it disguises itself so skillfully that we walk over it without knowing. And in the next moment becomes plain as day, whether we want it to or not. In the end, we learn that we cannot live without it.” Joseph M Marshall “The Lakota Way”

A couple of years ago, there was a popular Clint Eastwood movie called “Trouble with the Curve”. It was about an aging baseball player talent scout and one of the young men he was scouting who was reputed to have trouble hitting a curve ball, thus the movie title.

I could be a protagonist in a sequel called “Trouble with the Truth”. What follows has come to my awareness as I have been having a serious conversation with a part of my psyche I’ve named, “Deceiver”. I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering why I have ‘trouble’ telling the truth; the whole truth; and nothing but the truth. Am I a flawed human being? Is it a unique, to me, character defect? It certainly gets me in trouble from time to time. My exploring has led me to these places.

Our culture is crystal clear on the subject. I am expected to be honest and truthful. Period. To be so is a virtue; to not be so, is grounds for rejection. I’m told “The truth shall set you free”. “Rigorous honesty is the way”. “I am as sick (mentally ill) as the secrets I keep”. Society’s admonitions and teachings around honesty and truth telling are simple, clean, clear, unequivocal and direct. So what’s MY problem?

Not long ago, I was sitting on a plane when a boy, about 8, and his father came to find their seats. In my row. The father said to his son, “you sit there”, pointing at the middle seat, beside me. The boy looked at me and out of his little body came a wailing that would have awakened Rip Van Winkle three years early. The father said “What’s the matter?” Between full body sobs, he choked out “HE’S SO OLD!!!!!!” Those words were followed by a physical convulsion that unleashed the last two words “AND UGLY!!!!!” Another torrent of tears. You can imagine what happened next. Dad was totally embarrassed, profoundly apologized, made his son apologize, and told his son, loud enough to make sure I heard him. “That nice man isn’t ugly and he isn’t old”, as well as few other things like “You don’t say things like that to other people”, blah, blah, blah. During the course of this lecture, the boy’s and mine eyes met, just for a moment, and in that moment, we both knew the truth, and I smiled. We both knew who had spoken the truth. And it wasn’t dad. The lecturing must have been confusing to that little brain. I can just hear the little boy’s internal dialog “But dad, you’ve taught me to tell the truth, even punished me when I didn’t, now you are telling me to NOT tell the truth and I am getting punished because I was honest, I don’t get it”, though he was smart enough to just keep his mouth shut.

I’m thinking that our culture is actually pretty confused and confusing in terms of honesty. I have a friend (true story) whose wife came home with a new hairdo, asked him what he thought and out of his mouth came the words “your head looks like a Chia Pet”. He learned, not for the first time, that an honest reaction like that is not a good thing.

We are encouraged to dress and make ourselves up in ways that are designed to cover our flaws and accentuate our attributes. We are encouraged to smell more like a tree or a flower than our human selves.

When we testify in court we are asked to swear to tell the truth, the whole, truth and nothing but the truth, yet the 5th amendment allows us to not tell the truth, if in some way doing so might incriminate ourselves. If I am arrested, I know that my attorney doesn’t want me to say anything, (keep the truth to myself), because anything I say may be used against me.

The low price of gasoline has been fueled in part by an oil boom. That has been influenced by using techniques (called ‘fracking’) that involve pumping a concoction of chemicals deep into the earth. The companies who are doing this can keep secret (avoiding telling the truth) the exact content of this slurry, even though it is suspected to contain deadly, even radioactive chemicals in deadly quantities.

While our prepared food is required to let us know how much sugar is in the product, it doesn’t have to tell us what percentage of the recommended daily amount is represented in the food. All the other ingredients are required by law to tell us.

If I am in a lot of physical (or emotional) pain I have been taught to under-report it.

My son and daughter have been known to have conversations (not so complimentary at times) about me that they don’t share with me. I have done the same about them with their mom. Friends, neighbors, strangers, I keep many of my thoughts of them to myself. Sometimes these thoughts are “good” ones, even. Smiling when I really don’t feel happy, minimizing the impact of someone who has hurt my feelings, pretending like a joke doesn’t burn a little, all, in a way, not telling the truth. Keeping secrets. I don’t want to hurt them. Protecting myself.

Being honest, frankly honest, about everything is highly dysfunctional, (though it can be hilarious to witness; go to YouTube and find the “Fruitcake Lady” interviews with Jay Leno. It is so rare for someone to be like that we find it entertaining) in personal relationships, while being honest about some things is fundamental to functional relationships. That line is so very hard for me to define.

Finally, like any other living thing, I have a hunch that we are hard-wired to be deceptive to some degree. Fish pretend to be bigger than they really are, stealthy cats pretend not to be there, insects take on the appearance of a twig, viruses “fool” our immune system, possum who pretends to be dead. We once had a dog that would sleep on the couch, against the rules while we were gone, and when she heard us at the front door, would slink down off the couch, curl up on the floor, and pretend to have been sleeping there. I am not suggesting that this relieves me of any responsibility for what I do with this “nature”, but simply acknowledging that there may be factors that push us towards being deceptive that are natural and normal, not a sign of some deep seated pathology, that I will always be wrestling with.

So, bottom line, in my humble opinion, instead of teaching others (especially children) that honesty and truth telling is a black and white proposition, instead of holding others accountable for being perfectly and totally honest, instead of shaming them (or ourselves) when failing to meet the ‘mark’, acknowledging that the concept of “truth” is not quite so simple. Acknowledging that it is as complicated as knowing the meaning of love, or hate. Making it normal to know that sometimes we do the right thing with it, and sometimes we make mistakes. Wouldn’t that be more helpful, honest and truthful?

I think it is probably more than just OUR culture that has and does struggle with all this. Wisdom passed down from an ancient culture says:

And Philosopher Albert Camus said, “Man is the only creature that refuses to accept what he really is,” (which would include, I would suggest, being a deceptive creature).

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