In the foreword to her exquisite book of poetry entitled “Sightlines”, Janet Riehl sited a conversation we had as one of the factors that contributed to her writing the book. That conversation took place about six months before she went back to her ancestral home in Illinois to care for her 92-year old father.
Written after the death of her sister in a tragic automobile accident, Janet compiled her father’s mournful poems as well as her own and set out to document the ties that bind, and the things that matter most. What, on that particularly bright early October morning in 2004, sitting at the Farmer’s Market in Kelseyville, was it I said to her that made such an impact? I told her that she needed to know the truth about her life.
You know, as we go through life on this planet, we learn a few things – at least – we should. Those simple words,” you need to know the truth about your life”, became a mantra for me in the early 1990’s when I was going through a divorce. Much of the pain I felt at that time was because I didn’t know the truth about my life. My ex-wife hid the truth about our marriage from me. She knew that she had been attracted to other women all her life. She thought that marrying me could change that. It didn’t. The problem is, I didn’t know that she was gay. I didn’t find that out until she was ready for a divorce.
What a shock it was to me to realize that my ex-wife knew something so important about my life that I didn’t know – that we weren’t going to have children, and that we were not going to stay married. I’m not saying that during the entire five years of our relationship before the divorce that she was consciously planning to leave. The astonishing thing I discovered is that her entire life up to that point was consumed by an attempt to avoid the truth about her sexuality, as well as significant issues with her parents that profoundly affected both her and her brother as they were growing up. So, my ex-wife had made up an identity for herself that could not be sustained. She had constructed a psychological house of cards that came crashing down on her... and me.
The experience I had with my ex-wife taught me about many things. One of the most salient was this idea that I need to know the truth about my life, and that I have a right to wrest it from others if I need to. A while ago, my present wife, Carol and I were watching the TV show called “Mad Men”. In one episode the wife of the main character went through her husband’s clothing and possessions looking for evidence of extramarital affairs. Both Carol and I said, in unison to each other, “I’ve done that too.” Since this sermon is about truth and honesty, I’m not asking for a show of hands, but I am seeing a few knowing nods in this room.
What is so compelling that we are capable of going against our own principles, to discard our sense of right and wrong, and to invade another person’s privacy? Are we necessarily trying to prove something? Do we like being sneaky? Do we relish the idea that we can finally have closure to our suspicions? Really, it’s not so much all that... we just want to know the truth! And we find out, even knowing that the truth might be very painful. That truth might be that we are failing as a spouse or lover. A diary entry, email, or letter, might well expose the reason for the other’s distance. The truth might be that we are the cause of our beloved other flying into the emotional or physical arms of another person.
We sometimes crash right into the truth in places and times we don’t expect. That is because most of us, as I like say, simply don’t enjoy looking under the hood of our lives. We bumble along in spiritual automobiles that are in bad need of repair. Physically, we abuse ourselves with stress, too much work, not enough exercise... the list goes on. My ex-wife was an extreme case of this ability we have to lie to ourselves, but we all know we accept those blind spots in our psyches. For many of us the places we cannot see are entire fields of view – not just spots.
If we’re lucky, we have spouses or significant others who can have those exquisitely difficult 5:00 in the morning conversations with us that we really need. You know what I’m talking about – you know, the ones that start with “Are you awake”, and then move on into painful territory from there. In my previous marriage we never had those conversations. So instead of the occasional emotional landmines and truth-induced psychic crashes we all encounter with our significant others, I just got the Hiroshima version. Within months, my entire life was in tatters. I’m here to tell you that I prefer the occasional land mines that come from a spouse who is equally interested in brutal honesty as I am over the “blow you off the map, I’m out of here” kind.
When Carol asked me what I was going to do one morning about a year ago, I told her “I’m not going to tell you.” She accepted that, but I halfway suspect she knew I was going to spend the day writing a sermon instead of making money as a consultant, like I am supposed to do. I wasn’t going to lie to her, but I didn’t tell her the truth because I was protecting myself from her disapproval, and protecting her from my – well, creativity. How many times do we lie to another person because we think we are protecting them from the truth?
Well, actually here’s the part of the sermon where I tell you some interesting tidbits about lying. According to WikiAnswers, 12% of adults admit to telling lies "sometimes" or "often". The profession with the highest number of liars is teaching, with 65% admitting to telling lies, and a surprising 18% telling surveyors that they tell lies "routinely". The most dishonest time of day is between 9 and 9:30 in the evening, with the early hours of the morning most likely to reveal the truth. (“Aha, it’s 5 o’clock”, I thought o myself as I read that statistic!). The most profligate liar in history was US president Richard Nixon, who researchers found to have lied on record 837 times on a single day.
In his book “After Babel” George Steiner argued that deception was the reason for the development of different languages: it was humanity's deep desire for privacy and territory that saw the creation of thousands of languages, each designed to maintain secrecy and cultural isolation. Lying is a deeply human activity that goes to the core of our beings.
Maybe it is more useful to say, “avoiding the truth” rather than “lying”. Avoiding the truth is the reason why pilots will fly perfectly good airplanes into the ground because they have ran out of fuel. Avoiding the truth is the reason why people can so easily lie to themselves about their own lives. I know I am guilty of this. The reason why I found myself rummaging through a girlfriend’s closet once was not because I needed proof that she was lying to me about seeing someone else. I already knew that. The proof that I found was something I needed because I was lying to myself about her. I was so desperate to make the first serious relationship after my first wife left work that I completely disregarded all the red flags my girlfriend was hoisting.
During that time of divorce I learned a lot about knowing the truth about your life. It was at that time that I learned to listen to what others told me in ways that I had not before. I learned that we all have stories to tell, and that no one person’s story is more important than another’s. As I have grown older, I have heard many younger people’s stories about betrayal, heartache, anger, disappointment, bitterness, divorce, finding your way in the world, and come to realize that even though I’ve heard the stories countless times (many times from the same person), I can still connect with the urgency and immediacy of such challenges for that person. That is because they are telling the truth.
This sermon was inspired by a conversation I had late one night with a friend of mine. She told me she was deeply exploring whether to pursue a relationship with a man because I have told her many times that she needs to know the truth about her life. She was 43 years old at the time and wants to have children and to be married. He’s not a fan of marriage, and flatly refuses to have children with anyone. The painful truth is that she may not be able to have children at this time in her life, even though this has been a life-long dream. “The truth is,” she said, “I’m not sure if I really want to be chasing a five year old around the house when I am pushing 50.” Further in our conversation she said that is really the least of her concerns. She said that finding the man who is ideal for her has come at the cost of needing to examine whether to give up on the dream of having children. More specifically, as time has gone by, she has not been truthful with herself about how much her age has played a role in precluding her from having children.
Telling the truth is an art. Those of us who practice it can tell you we do so because it just feels better than not telling the truth. Once you get used to it, truthfulness becomes a well-appreciated habit. Telling the truth about things, events, circumstances, and so on, is fairly easy, once you get the hang of it. That is what I would call being honest and having integrity. Telling the truth about your life, or someone else’s life is more difficult. That is often the gray area we like to avoid. George Steiner would say we lie to protect privacy and to gain territory that is at the root of our desires. On a personal level we can certainly all appreciate the need for privacy. But the other reason for lying – territory - doesn’t have to be real estate. It can be desire for another person, the desire to change ourselves fundamentally in a way that might do harm to another, it can be a desire to leave our circumstances, a compulsion to do something others will not approve of, or a host of other ways we covet new territory.
Shri Atmanandji wrote, a book entitled “Sadhak and Sathi”. The subject of chapter 22 in the book is truthfulness. In it he wrote:
“Now, the practice of truth in the day-to-day events of one's life or in all other matters is the
cherished goal of an aspirant. One who is successful in this type of practice is conventionally recognized as a truthful person in society. This is all about conventional truth...
Let us now turn to absolute truth, which dominates in the true spiritual progress (Sadhana). However, it is based on conventional truth. The ultimate aim of spiritual Sadhana is realization of one's true self. This true self is revealed in direct proportion to destruction of the amount of bondage to Karmas, and this in turn, is achieved by removing the two main causes of bondage to Karma: (a) lack of self-knowledge and (b) lack of self-control.”
Here I think the guru hit the nail on the head. Lack of self-knowledge and lack of self-control go hand in hand. I don’t know if I can fully agree with those being the cause of bondage to Karma, but I do agree that these two evil twin sisters are the cause of some pretty dicey experiences that led to entire periods in my own life.
I might go further to offer a kind of psychic algebra. I believe lack of self- knowledge leads to lack of self-control. After all, knowing about how and why we operate, (that is, if we’ve made a practice of peering under the hood and kicking the tires periodically) stops us from crashing into things.
How privacy relates to truthfulness is very interesting. Privacy is one thing — but secrecy is another. In private is where we work out our desires. It is the safe place in which we wrestle with our two dominant attributes: self-centeredness and other-centeredness. It is self-centeredness that causes us to desire “other territory”, while other-centeredness is where the higher nature to consider the welfare of others springs. To be honest about it, we are all eternally struggling with these great impulses.
Secrecy, by definition, is the attempt to hide something from another person. In secrecy is where we move inescapably from other-centeredness into the realm of self-centeredness. Especially when it relates to relationships, the secret is not so much about working through anything. It is about purposely not telling the truth about something that will affect another person. Whatever lies beneath it, whether it is fear, greed, anger, lust, or any host of other feelings, secrecy in a relationship is almost always bad for both you and others.
I’m not saying either privacy or secrecy is wrong. In fact, secrets sometimes must be kept in order to legitimately protect another person; it’s just that truthfulness must always be the byproduct of self- knowledge and self-control.
Guy Finley wrote an essay called “Free Yourself by Seeing Yourself: 9 Ways to Heal the Hidden Hurting in You”. In the essay Finley wrote:
“No one can be free who refuses to see what actually lives within him. This is why Real self-healing begins with Truthful self-seeing. There is no other order, no other way. Consciousness of any unwanted condition in us must precede its correction, just as the rising sun dismisses the fear hiding in the darkness of night. This is why we must learn that anything in us that does not want us to see the truth about our actual unenlightened condition is itself a part of what is punishing us. We can learn to do much better!”
Finley goes on to describe nine eye-opening facts about areas in our lives he says we have chosen not to see what must be seen... If we would be Free.
I find number 6 especially interesting, and suitable for today’s talk.
“We close our eyes to the fact that just because we have mastered hiding some character fault of ours doesn't mean that it has stopped hurting those around us who cannot avoid being subjected to it.”
The best way to avoid hurting others is learning not to hide the truths about us that can be damaging others and ourselves. When you can know, then reveal the truth about your life, then everyone benefits. You become an integrated person who has both self-knowledge and self-control.
The third principle that we Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. One of the reasons why this topic came up so powerfully for me is that I realized not long ago, that is how and why I enjoy talking with others in deep, intimate conversations. It surprised me to understand that these conversations are almost always about assisting others in some manner to acknowledge the truth in their lives. And in so doing, I see my own relationships with them more clearly. It is not a far stretch to understand that my truth is affected by theirs.
And so it is with us all. We are all burdened by lack of clarity and purposefulness in our lives. We profoundly affect others around us in ways we cannot imagine when we are not able to see this. When we don’t tell others these truths, we diminish them. Denis Diderot said about truthfulness, “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.”
As for me, I thank Carol for those 5 o’clock in the morning conversations we occasionally have. We both agreed before we were married that our union would offer us an accelerated spiritual path that would be difficult to travel alone. I have come to understand, and appreciate that, knowing the truths about our lives are the bricks that pave that path.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!