Honesty and Truth
I recently read that a lawyer needs to be honest but does not need to be truthful.
What does that mean?
Once upon a time, there was a man who had relations with an intern that was of a sexual nature. When asked about it under oath, he famously said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Was he being honest? Well, yes. Although “sexual relations” can mean any sexual behavior, it is commonly meant as sexual intercourse. Was he being truthful? No.
Being truthful means telling the whole story. Being honest means not lying. This can be confusing because we use these words interchangeably without really thinking about what they mean. But different words exist for a reason. And the reason is they mean different things.
Jordan Peterson is known for saying “Tell the truth or at least don’t lie”. At first glance, some may take this to mean “be like a lawyer”. Be honest at the very least if you don’t want to give the whole story. I don’t think that’s what Dr. Peterson meant.
Telling the truth requires at least these three things: (1) knowing what information is true, (2) knowing that withholding the information will mislead, and (3) vulnerability.
This is straightforward with regard to actions. As to the man under oath, it was clear that he was withholding information that would mislead. For some people, withholding the truth is as good as lying.
But what does this mean for our own feelings? What does this mean for that elusive thing called “love”? What is true? And are we being truthful?
Knowing what information is true
With regards to love, sometimes we don’t know what is true. We don’t know what other people really think about us. We don’t know how someone really feels about us. The only truth we have is our own feelings. Even then, we have trouble knowing what our true feelings are. This can simply be because we honestly don’t know what we are feeling. More on that below.
Knowing that withholding the information will mislead
Withholding information that will mislead goes more towards being truthful with others. Not lying (being honest) while not telling the truth can mislead another person into believing that some things are true when they aren’t. If you cheat and aren’t truthful about it, it’s the same as a lie. You know what the truth is. And you’re misleading another person into believing something that is a lie.
We can also mislead ourselves. We can deny what is true. We can deny feelings or try to feel something that isn’t there. If that’s the case, then we are only lying to ourselves.
This is where it gets scary. Being truthful means being vulnerable. When telling the truth to another person, this means opening yourself up. You are open to receiving either the pain or, hopefully, the pleasure of the other person’s reaction. It’s the pain that usually prevents us from being truthful.
This is the same with regards to being truthful to ourselves. I recently had a long conversation with a friend about love. After an hour of going in circles, she finally pinned down my truth. It took a long time to get there because I wasn’t being vulnerable with myself. Was it painful? Yes. Was it the truth? Absolutely.
Being true to ourselves isn’t easy. We can mislead our hearts. We can lie about our feelings. But, in the end, we cannot be in harmony with ourselves unless we get to the core of what our true feelings are.