Honesty is Still a Lonely Word

Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue.

– Billy Joel

I imagine that, like me, many of you are deeply disappointed to learn that Lance Armstrong was almost certainly lying when he said he didn’t dope. I like the guy and was really hoping that the allegations weren’t true. I feel sorry for the kids who looked up to him.

Children expect adults to be honest with them, and it can be a traumatic experience for a child to learn that an adult has lied. Yet, adults often lie, or withhold the truth, in order to protect kids. My parents shielded me from the awful truth that George Reeves, the man who played my hero Superman on TV, had committed suicide. I don’t know how my 7 year old mind would have processed the information had I had heard the news when it happened. By the time I finally did learn of his death, I could take it in stride. And I’m certainly glad that I was an adult before I learned what a mess Mickey Mantle was. It was much easier to protect kids when I was growing up. Nowadays, they are bombarded with so much information from so many sources I don’t see how it’s possible.

Kids live in a world when the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is blurred. Most experts will tell you that it’s normal for children to make up stories and “fib” in the form of tall tales. But as people grow older, lying is often a sign of emotion problems. Yet, we all lie.

As Billy Joel sang in “Honesty,” everyone is so untrue. It’s a fact. A recent study conducted at the University of Notre Dame indicates that “Americans average about 11 lies per week.” I suspect the vast majority of these lies are what we call “little white lies.” They’re minor, we consider them harmless, even necessary at times.

That we engage in so much lying is troubling. Equally disconcerting is way in which we accept lies and how we are inconsistent about who we hold accountable for telling lies. We’re outraged when government officials lie, and yet we accept, even expect, that politicians will lie. I suppose politicians and government officials have always been liars to a certain degree, just as athletes have lied and attempted to cover up the truth about their consumption of alcohol and drugs. But I wonder why we put up with it. Do we realize that these people are just reflections of ourselves?

The researchers at Norte Dame studied 110 people. Half were told not to lie for 10 weeks. The other half received no instructions. According to a presentation given at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association:

Both groups came to the laboratory each week to complete health and relationship measures and to take a polygraph test assessing the number of major and white lies they had told that week . . . Over the course of 10 weeks, the link between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group . . . when participants told fewer lies, they reported that their close personal relationships had improved and that their social interactions overall had gone more smoothly that week, the study revealed.”

While it’s by no means conclusive, the study suggests is that when we’re honest our health and our relationships improve. But, you know, there is an even more compelling reason why we should tell the truth: it’s the right thing to do.

When a person feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil deed that he will not do. Thus, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie even in jest.'”

– Buddha, quoted in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta

That statement might be a bit of a stretch, after all, just because a person tells lies it doesn’t mean he or she would then engage in murder. We could amend it, slightly, to say that when a person feels no shame in telling a lie, there is no lie he or she might not tolerate. Owing to the fact that this is a world in which all things are interlinked through causes and conditions, there must be a correlation between acceptance of our own lies and our acquiescence to the lies told by others.

People lie because they know they can get away with it. Politicians especially know they can get away with it because our attentions spans are short and our level of apathy is high.

The situation is not acceptable and we can change it. When we become stricter with ourselves and practice less lying, it will have a causal effect on those around us, and the world at large.

Buddhism teaches that “self and surrounding environment” (Jp. esho) exist in a mutual relationship (Jp. sogo kankei), and furthermore “self and surrounding environment” are non-dual, they are one (Jp. esho funi). Because of this, it is said that when we change, the world changes. Indeed, this principle is the foundation that supports one of the basic of all Buddhist concepts, self-purification.

Gandhi once observed that the Buddha used self-purification “to to overcome the oppression, injustice, and darkness around him.” [1. Y.P. Anand, Mahatma Gandhi on Lord Buddha and Buddhism, New Delhi, National Gandhi Museum] Gandhi undertook the same practice because he understood that self-purification is the best way to build a better society, and his accomplishments were a living testament to that truth.

Honesty is still a lonely word, but it’s also, as has been said many times, the best policy. For better health, for better relationships, for a better world – perhaps it is time that we demand more honesty from ourselves, if we do not then we cannot demand it from others, and everyone will continue to be so untrue.

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3 thoughts on “Honesty is Still a Lonely Word

  1. That’s a good point: “he might well have won anyway.” Any athlete who can beat cancer should have the wherewithal to win a bike race on his or her own. I also wonder if the steroids played a part in the cancer.

    I heard an interesting comment from one of Armstrong’s competitors yesterday. This guy said that Armstrong’s doping meant that his (the competitor’s) early years of racing were wasted, since it wasn’t a level playing field.

    Thanks for catching the typo. Corrected.

  2. Nagarjuna says that false speech makes your breath will smell bad — maybe someone could investigate this in their next study.

    On a more serious note, I always find it interesting to see the findings of scientific and spiritual practitioners compared. Regardless of the differences in method, if the methods are sound, we shouldn’t be surprised when people find that the same causes lead to the same results.

    That being said, as far as the five precepts go, it seems that common wisdom is usually right on.

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