Three events over the last few weeks have helped me to re-consider my approach to telling the truth. You know that moment when your wife comes out in a new dress, as you are getting ready to go out for a celebration dinner. The moment you see it you think it is hideous and she asks you if she looks good in it. You stand in thought for a moment—not too long otherwise she will know something is wrong—deciding whether to tell the truth. The problem is deciding what the truth is, and deciding how to say it to her.
Online Men’s Group
I am a member of an online Men’s Group, The Virtual Men’s Gathering. We are a group of ten men who have been meeting online for over three years. Every other Friday we get together and talk about being men. We live in Europe and North America and most of us work in Men’s Work. Although most of us have never met, we have developed close personal friendships. We have a safe, strong bond in the group.
Recently, one member of the group decided to take a break from the group. he wanted to re-assess the extent to which the group supports him. An issue had arisen that called into question whether the other men trusted him. He had taken a personal position based on his confidence in who he was and how he showed up. Other men did not agree that his position was an honest one. The disagreement hinged around two opposing views on who he was and how he showed up. He felt that the group did not trust what he said and so he did not feel supported by the group.
For me this caused a problem in the safety of the circle. The honesty of the men and the authentic nature of how we all showed up, created the bond of the circle. As long each man was telling his truth then all would be good. In this case, because we all told our truth, we had driven someone out of the group, albeit temporarily. This called into question the basis of the group’s existence. If we are not able to tell the truth, then what is the point of us getting together?
In another group I meet with where I live, a disagreement arose between me and another man. We left each other with me telling him how much he had offended me. It was clear I upset him by the way I did it, as I was by what he had said. I later realised I had gone too far and tried to send him an apology. He did not receive it. I told someone else in the group that I wanted to apologise, hoping it would get back to him.
Earlier this week I was out for a meal with my wife and he came into the restaurant with some friends. I tried to shake his hand, but I could see he was still upset with me. Later, as I went to leave the restaurant, he caught up with me. He said that he had heard that I wanted to apologise, was that the case. I told him yes and emphasised that I, without reservation, apologised to him for my behaviour. He accepted the apology. He then said that even if I had mis-interpreted him, I was completely out of order. This took me aback aback by this and felt an instant negative reaction. I let that go, determined that we should part on amicable terms.
Did that mean I was not being authentic?
Today I attended my weekly Yoga class where we spend the first half hour discussing Yoga philosophy. We are looking at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and how they affect our daily lives. The specific aspect we were looking at today was the relation between Ahimsa and Satya.
They are Sanskrit terms describing specific aspects of a way of life, based on Yoga philosophy. Ahimsa means non-violence, or reverence and compassion for all life. Satya means non-falsehood, or a dedication to truth or integrity. They work together while appearing to be in conflict with each other. The truth, Satya, often hurts, but if you are dedicated to it, it seems you have to express it. This can be in conflict with a life of compassion, Ahimsa.
In discussing it in the class we came to the dilemma I started with, what does a man say to his wife when she is wearing a hideous dress?
There is a saying variously attributed to Socrates, Sai Baba and to Sufism,
Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
There is a more detailed version of the same thought in a poem called ‘Three Gates’ written in 1835 by Beth Day,
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass
Before you speak, three gates of gold.
These narrow gates:
First, “is it true?”
Then, “is it needful?”
In your mind
Give truthful answer.
And the next
Is last and narrowest,
“Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear,
What result of speech may be.
Truth and Compassion
This seems to square the circle show a way to unite the two concepts of truth and compassion. Dedication to the truth does not demand telling that truth to others. Apart from the question of whether what you think is actual truth or merely opinion, there is no demand that others should know what it is. It is how you live that matters, not what you say. You cannot speak falsehoods, of course, but you can think your way through the situation to live with compassion.
Is it necessary? That is the key to how you might behave with others.
Most people will not remember what you said or what you did. But they will remember how you made them feel.
In the case of my apology to the man I had a disagreement with, the key is what I said to him and how I made him feel. I may have felt that what he said, in the restaurant, was unhelpful. But it was not necessary for me to say anything about it. In letting it go I was not being inauthentic, just more interested in compassion for our relationship.
In the men’s group it seems that when we all spoke ‘our truth’ about the other man, we were not taking Satya into account. We all felt we were speaking the truth and, thus, it was important to say it. That was wrong. What was the purpose in what we said? Did we appreciate the harm to his self-esteem when we were speaking? The fact that he left did not break the bond of truth in the group. But it did make us re-consider whether the group was safe. Why were we so keen to show his truth up as wrong?
Returning to the question of what to say to your wife? The answer is to respond with compassionate truth, such as, “You always look great and you are so attractive tonight.” She wants to feel great and there is no need for you to be truthful about ‘the dress’. Tell her what you feel and let the dress go. You are being truthful and compassionate.
… relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.
That would seem to, neatly, combine Ahimsa and Satya.