Do we remain captives of the lie when the truth can set us free ??
THE WORDS “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” have echoed through time for two thousand years. Hands to ears, humanity has fled them ever since they were spoken.
If you don’t believe me, hold a discussion meeting on the subject of truth or honesty or communication, and see what happens. Unless your group is highly unusual–and you are highly determined–within minutes, the discussion will bog down in the comfortable rut of cash-register honesty.
“. . .Seven years later, I sent that bartender a check,” someone will proudly say in concluding an anecdote.
“Not me!” another will reply. “The liquor industry got enough out of me–I’m not repaying a cent!”
Unless the discussion is reined in sharply, it will canter lazily back to the barn without much benefit to anyone, you realize. So you suggest more emphasis on truthfulness per se, rather than fiscal responsibility. Immediately, someone will point out that truth must be used discreetly; someone else will offer, as an illustration, his anger over a truthful but harsh remark; and–presto!–you are not discussing truth any more, but resentment.
You try once again. “But don’t you think being honest in all our dealings is important?” you ask desperately.
The clamorous response to this even awakens the drunk sleeping it off in the back row. Everyone is furious, the assumption being that you have demanded a mass orgy of public confession during which their darkest sins will be revealed for group vilification. If you are lucky, someone will bring up the Fifth Step or the anonymity tradition before you are lynched.
I have only gradually come to view truth as the most beautiful and accessible aspect of Harmony, or It, or God. This mass fear of it would surprise me more if I had not once felt the same way. Before AA, I had a go-round with psychiatry. I frequently complained that, although I arrived at the doctor’s office with green eyes and pink cheeks, after a tearful bout with truth I left with pink eyes and green cheeks. “And for this, I’m paying you!” I would conclude furiously.
I felt then, as many of us do, that the full revelation of “the real me” could result only in total rejection from those who saw it. I remembered a film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of a man who makes a pact with the devil, in return for which he lives on unchanged forever, while his shrouded portrait bears the visible ravages of time and depravity. At the conclusion of the black-and-white film, Dorian draws back the curtain and the picture of a monstrous, barely human creature is revealed in color, unbelievably horrible.
Although Dorian presumably practices every form of evil for a century or so, and I was barely thirty, I was convinced that I, too, harbored within me a Dorian Gray who, once displayed publicly, would end forever my chance for acceptance. Gradually, however, in the course of therapy, the curtain began to slip aside, until finally the truth of “the real me” was revealed. When I mustered up the courage–and it took a lot–to look fully at the self I had run from all my life, I saw, not Dorian Gray, not Ilse Koch, not even Madame Defarge, but an average American housewife! My relief was overwhelming. True, as I began to look more closely, I noticed serious flaws: I was an alcoholic; I was neurotic; I was brimful of character defects. But these were things that, in time and with help, could be dealt with. No longer did I have to run with nightmarish terror from an inner monster. I had seen the truth, and the truth had freed me to do less hiding and more seeking.
The effort to escape from truth is the father of anxiety. Consider the man who lies awake at night wondering whether his chest pains are the result of indigestion or heart trouble. If he fears going to a doctor to find out, he is carrying a burden he may not have to carry at all. Even if he finds that it is his heart, he is free to deal with reality and take precautions that may save his life. Truth has not hurt, but healed.
A world where truth does not shine is a world filled with fog and cobwebs, a gray miasma through which we run blind and lost and terrified, tripping over roots we do not see, dodging the threat of looming shapes, remaining separated from our fellows in the dripping, fear-filled darkness.
The world of truth is the world of What Is, the world of the Spanish lime tree outside my window, wearing sunshine like a halo. It is the search room I sit in, the sleeping kitten, the job that must be done, the pleasure to be had or planned for. It is Here. It is Now. It is What Is. It is my world, my truth, my reality, and in it I am no longer “a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.”
True, this world of mine contains ingredients I do not like–pain, grief, anger, fear, tragedy. But these are the things I must accept, because they are part of the totality and I cannot change them. I wasted years escaping into the unreality of alcoholism. Until I faced the truth that I could not drink, I was alone in the fog and the silence.
Before I learned to love truth, I had to learn to recognize it. Truth is not an immutable absolute, a granite peak, eternal, unmoving, hiding its head in a nimbus of clouds. Truth is a ballerina tracing arabesques in a pattern of color and music, ever-changing, harmonious.
Truth is totality: question and answer, nail and hammer, inside and outside. It is never narrow or sectarian. It is not blind, because its own radiance banishes obscurity.
Truth is multifaceted, because it is reality. Your truth and mine are different, because we are different. Your beliefs are your truth, as mine are mine. When that is accepted, any cause for conflict between us is resolved. Neither of us is right or wrong. We simply hold different pieces of the incredible jigsaw puzzle of life, and each piece has its place.
Truth is immediate. What was true yesterday is no longer true today, and tomorrow is not born yet. Today–Now–is truth. What is happening all over the world at this moment is truth, and no part is “truer” than any other part. We are all equal shareholders in reality. For an individual or group to believe he or it has captured the whole of truth is absurd.
When truth is so beautiful, why do we embrace the lie? As a practicing alcoholic, I escaped into non-truth because I felt ill-equipped to cope with reality. And yet the “reality” I perceived was a lie, too. I was escaping from one lie to another, seemingly more pleasant. Because I felt, sober, that I was unlovable, ugly, awkward, and flawed, surrounded by hostile strangers who were devoting their entire attention to spotting my inadequacies, I got drunk. Then, for a while, I felt confident and safe enough from others to enjoy them and myself. Is it any wonder that I fought against returning to the ugly “reality” that sobriety seemed to offer?
When I finally accepted the fact that I couldn’t drink, that the solace and fun I had found in alcohol were no longer there for me, I turned to AA to show me how to live in that hostile, terrifying sober world I had deserted many years before. Having found the first truth, I now had to find others: that people were not hostile; that they were not looking for my flaws, but were much more concerned with their own; that, though reality presented many challenges, it had also provided me with the means to deal with them; and that the rewards of dealing with them were multifold–self-respect, a sense of accomplishment, ability to accept responsibility, tolerance, and, most of all, a feeling of being in step with my world. I had begun to grow up. I had found more truth.
Now I search for truth–for the reality I can deal with, rather than the nightmare I cannot. If a snake is coiled in my living room, I want him out where I can see him–not hiding in the shadows, waiting, while I reach for another drink and pretend he isn’t there.
What we really fear is not truth, but the lie, as I did when “reality,” as I mistakenly viewed it, chased me into alcoholism. I have found that it is not wise to accept everything at face value–it is often lazy or stupid.
The concept that a little truth goes a long way, that truth hurts, never ceases to surprise me, since I have found that truth protects. Suppose a “friend” comes up to you at a party and asks, “Why did you ever buy that dress? It’s a horrible color for you.” Is that the truth? It may or may not be. Only other opinions will help determine that, and you can get them from people whose opinions you respect. If everyone agrees with the “friend,” you have been spared looking unattractive–get the darned thing dyed, and look pretty! If no one agrees with her, don’t stop there–recognize that your “friend” may be spiteful, cruel, or jealous, and if she is, you are better off without her.
If someone at the office brings you a rumor that a cutback is impending and you will be the first to go, don’t just stand there getting ulcers–find out the truth while there is still time to seek another job. Don’t agonize over truth or turn your back on it–use it!
When it comes to telling others the truth, I have a few simple rules. First, I ask myself whether telling it is necessary and whether it will help. Truth is not a bludgeon to be used indiscriminately. If the truth is unwanted, speaking out is often premature. When I am asked for an opinion or advice, I give it to the best of my ability with as much gentleness, understanding, and tolerance as I can scrape up. I do not misuse the request by unloading a backlog of resentment and criticism, and I never, never use the confidence as ammunition against the person in the future, in talking either with him or to others about him. I have been honored with a confidence, and I must treat it as the precious thing it is.
On the rare occasions when I feel I must offer unsolicited advice, I try to remember that I am paying a compliment. I am saying, in effect, “You have a serious problem that must be dealt with, and I am taking the liberty of pointing it out to you because I am sure you have the wisdom and ability to deal with it. I have confidence in you.” Truth presented in this way is reinforcing and seldom resented for long. Honesty in dealing with oneself and others kindly does not backfire.
In one way only is truth an absolute: Without it, there can be no growth. Truth is to inner space what sunshine is to a garden. In its absence, fear flourishes and imagination runs riot, conjuring up pursuing monsters where there are only paper dragons. I wonder why it takes so long to realize that nightmares can never be outdistanced, simply because they do not exist. Unreality cannot be coped with precisely because it is unreal. Only when we open our minds and hearts to the truth can we expose our paper dragons for what they are–a child’s forgotten toys.
Truth liberates. Truth heals. Truth unlocks the door to the glory of reality and gives us the means to live in harmony with reality. In return, it asks only that we surrender all lies and illusions and love What Is. Why do we wait so long?