Lying in bed at 5 a.m. this morning, trying to psyche myself out of an oncoming cold, it occurred to me: I haven’t written about the one idea, the one problem that has taught me the most about myself and about other people this year.
The problem of honesty, compassion, and how they relate to each other.
I consider myself an honest person, overall, but there’s more to honesty than not lying. There is the realization that, no matter how strongly you feel about something, no matter how utterly you believe something to be true, it is only your opinion, your truth you can ever know.
There is the drive to be right, and to believe in the experiences that have shaped you until this moment. Sometimes in the pursuit of truth, armed with the tool-cum-weapon of honesty, compassion can be discarded, forgotten.
The more I read, the more I realize that it takes no skill at all to present one’s truth to the world, in one’s own terms. The skill lies within the presence of compassion: the realization that whatever you say and whatever you do somehow affects another living being, whether in overt or subtle ways.
Popular opinion dictates that total honesty is better than the alternative. But is the alternative really dishonesty? Or is it rather a different level of honesty, which makes it no less valid, only more compassionate.
I would argue that there are very few situations in life that call for total honesty as it is revered in online journals and diaries. This same honesty can also be referred to as “journalistic integrity” that leaves nothing out, nothing to be left to the imagination of the reader.
But so much is left out.
Every time I write about an instance in my life that was important to my development, it is me who is deciding what importance to deem on each event, and it is my eyes through which I have seen it. The choice of words is mine; the memory, incomplete or no, is mine. You are seeing my life as I want you to see it, as I want to see it, as I want someone, somewhere to see it. Whether I portray myself as a hero or an anti-hero, it is still my own portrayal.
It will, regardless of truth, regardless of honesty, conflict with someone else’s experience. Without fail.
I decide what I write about. If I were to document every thought I perused, every phrase I uttered, in every single day, I would not be living the life you read about.
Instead, I choose. The choice itself tells you a great deal: what I leave out tells you much more about myself than what I tell you. For example, you may notice I don’t say much, if anything, about my sex life, the project I am wrestling with at work, my conversations with friends, my politics, my religious beliefs, my poetry. Does this mean I don’t find meaning in these aspects of my life? Certainly not. What does it mean?
It means you are not privy to these parts of my life, or that you are only privy to them when I say you are. It means many other things: that I am uncomfortable writing about works-in-progress, that the inner workings of my relationship with Chad are not for public consumption, that I refuse to publicly disrespect the people I have known simply because I hold opinions on their lives.
Their lives are, after all, their lives. I can’t claim to always know why I do things; assuming I know why other people do things, simply by virtue of being acquainted with them, is a grossly deluded belief. Judging them according to how I lead my own life is even more deluded.
I can make these assumptions and judgments, however. I can and do because I want to examine my life, to understand why things happen and how I can either encourage or prevent them from happening in the future.
Whether or not I share these assumptions and judgments with you … well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it? Some would say that part of keeping an online journal is leaving nothing relevant out. Yet who decides this relevance? The author, of course. Where compassion makes this murky is how it tweaks what is relevant and what is not, and orders them accordingly.
I have decided many times since the inception of this journal to leave things out.
Does this make me a bad diarist? Perhaps; like many things, it depends on your definitions of “bad” and of “diarist”. But I suspect that you, like me, are unwilling to discount a body of writing as “bad” on the basis of one person’s truth. After all, I much prefer literature to journalism.
Does this make me dishonest? Again, perhaps. I am certainly not without flaws, and the problem of honesty is one that plagues me regularly because I have had such a tumultuous affair with its manifestations. On the one hand, I would like to be able to write “I never lie” but I do. Whether or not you make a distinction between “the little white lie” and “lies of omission” and “fabrications” and “exaggerations”, they’re all in the same category and it is a category I am well-acquainted with in both the liar and lie-ee roles.
On the other hand, I would like to be able to add a disclaimer about what lying really is, and why I have done it, and why I will do it in the future. You know where I’m going with this already. My compassion tempers my honesty, and whether that is a good idea or a bad idea to you in theory, I assure you that in practice it has given me perspective and even wisdom. One such practical application of compassion in regards to honesty is the age-old, “If someone asks for my honest opinion, do I give it to them, regardless of how I think it may affect their feelings and/or our relationship?”
I almost lost one of my dearest friends because I refused to be compassionate toward her. I couldn’t see past my own opinion far enough to want to know hers. I insisted that I knew what was going on, that I knew what was right, and she was obviously confused about what she really wanted.
Instead, I dumped kilobytes of text on her, with the guise of “concern” and “love” when really it was only me spewing my own self-righteous gunk at her and expecting her to say, “You’re right, Halsted. You’re right.” I needed to be right more than I needed to help her. I needed to be heard more than I needed to hear her. And I needed to be honest more than I needed to be compassionate.
It turns out I was wrong, about judgments I passed from firsthand knowledge of her situation, about assumptions I made on secondhand information, and about opinions I held that had actually very little to do with her personally and more to do with my own negative experiences. I placed my truth at a higher importance than hers. She called me on it, too, and although it hurt to hear what I had done to her, she was gentle, she was compassionate … and she was right.
My wish to be both honest and compassionate is a difficult one. There must be some way for both to compromise so they can be equally important, but I haven’t found the fail-safe method yet. Not all of my stories on this subject have happy endings, but most of them do, and I continue to learn. By surrounding myself with people who are willing to understand my hybrid of compassion and honesty, I learn even more about the delicate interplay within, and how each define my life.
And that I would rather lack honesty than lack compassion.