Thursday, March 27, 2008

Liar, liar, pants on fire

I'm back reading the Gospel of Thomas again, up to Logion 6, in which the disciples are asking a lot of stupid questions about religious rituals and Jesus cuts to the chase, saying "Stop lying, and don't do what you hate."

This verse is one of the many reasons I am so fond of this Gospel: I love that Jesus sees through our piddling attempts to look like Christians and do "Christian things" to the meat underneath.

I also love what Lynn Bauman does with Thomas in his book, "In Trouble and In Wonder," and I find the related verses he offers at the end of each explication to be particularly illuminating. Today there was a verse from Meister Eckhart that particularly struck me:

"What a cruel act to be untruthful.
Earthquakes happen in the heart that hears sounds that are amiss.
Havoc is created in the mind that can no longer trust someone once loved,
and schisms devour alliances that helped support life....
There are fields in the soul -- lush organic meadows,
though sounds and words that fall there can be, at times a poison.
A plague is spread by one who cannot tell the truth."

...and I see that in one of my previous readings I highlighted this passage from A.H. Almaas:

"...the process of learning to see the truth will bring up a lot of pain, fear and humiliation. So when you are faced with the choice of seeing the truth about yourself or someone else, or avoiding the pain, which is the compassionate action? If you choose to hide the truth in any situation, no matter how devastatingly painful it might be to face it, you are sentencing yourself to living the World of Lies."

It seems to me that these two verses pretty much cover it: lies hurt other people, and lies hurt you, too. But of course things are never quite that clear-cut. Speaking as a person who struggles with pretty serious trust issues, I would say that though in my life I have certainly been hurt by obvious lies, it has been the less obvious ones that have caused the most damage.

I think these less obvious lies fall into two categories: the ones that feel like truths when they are said, because the speaker is terribly out of touch with him/herself; and the ones that were put in place to protect me and/or not hurt my feelings. My issues with the church stem primarily from the former, from both lay and clergy people who have over the years acted primarily and rather obviously out of self-interest while earnestly believing they were serving a higher good.

And my issues with men stem primarily from the latter: a father who, in attempting to protect me from the truth about his infidelity, ended up severing the connection between us completely; and a former husband who would say "I love you" even as he was walking out the door to an assignation with another woman.

But of course none of these passages -- Thomas, Almaas, or Eckhart -- is really about the damage others do to us. They are all REALLY about the damage WE do, to others and ourselves. And the important thing, it seems to me, is not just that it is damaging to lie in obvious ways, but that it is the other two kinds of lies -- the ones that result from being out of touch with ourselves or from trying to protect others -- that are ultimately the most devastating. Those are the ones that make "earthquakes happen in the heart."

So however difficult it might be to share hard truths with a friend or a loved one, how much worse is it to be condemned "to living in a world of lies"? Wouldn't that feel more like death than like life -- at least within the context of that relationship? To have to close off a part of yourself would, I think, drain the lifeblood out of the relationship, and leave the other person feeling awkward, cut off and confused -- not to mention there would be whole parts of you that could never come up for air, never have the blessing of love. And, given the likelihood truth has of always coming out eventually, wouldn't there be feelings of anger and betrayal when at last the truth emerged?

And on the other side: however difficult it may be for me to sit with the truth about myself -- to notice as I did yesterday, for example, that I get absurdly cranky when things don't go my way -- how much harder is it on those with whom I live to continually be manipulated into tiptoing around my control needs? Because if I don't admit the truth to myself, I can't work on it. And if I can't admit the truth to them then they can't call me on it safely. And safely, I think, is a key word here.

I was thinking about that last night, as I watched a meeting of our city council and listened to our mayor attempting to quash rumors of a gag order. I don't know where the truth of the situation lies; don't know who on the staff spoke to whom on the council, or about what. But it seems to me that whether or not an official gag order was ever placed, it is quite possible (having worked at least three times in environments where certain truths were not safe to say, and so were bandied about constantly in private sessions behind closed doors) that someone somewhere -- probably someone in a position of power -- is out of touch with the truth about themselves.

I remember going to a workshop years ago, given by the late Edwin Friedman, on family dynamics as expressed in a church environment. Friedman had a special concern with emotional fields created by leaders that value togetherness over individuality, creativity, and/or imagination. He observed that when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member (low in the organizational hierarchy) is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, 100 percent of the time it will be true that, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, the person at the very top of that institution will be a peace-monger, a person who believes good feelings are more important than progress, and who goes to great lengths to avoid anxiety and conflict at all costs.

One common way to avoid anxiety and conflict is to hide truth. In fact, I've had bosses who would get furiously angry if I, as a person designated to communicate news, would even consider communicating news that might conceivably create anxiety or conflict. This behavior usually led to extremely dysfunctional environments, where no-one could tell which truths were safe and which were not, so all truth was stifled.

Another way of putting this is to say "When people are afraid to disturb things and their fear of change is greater than health, then they are not going to get healthier. Most people would prefer peace to progress. That works against us. Most people find that there is no way out of a chronic condition without being willing to go through an acute phase. We’d all prefer the dullness of the chronic pain to the acute pain necessary in change. And yet, there is probably never a chronic situation that you can work through unless you are willing to tolerate more pain intensely over a shorter period of time. That is as true about a toothache or standing up to a vestry."


We are all human, and most of us are surely peace-mongers at heart. But Jesus is asking us to question that tendency, and our motivations for peace. Maybe it really is time, however painful it might be, to follow his advice.

"Stop lying. Do not do what you hate."


Mallove said...

Such a welcome truth-telling in this post! I've been wrestling with a person who--in my opinion--continually exaggerates or spreads opinions unbound by facts in order to try to make changes in the community. While I might agree with most of his politics, I get really ornery about his tactics, and we invariably end up in a drawn-out, uncomfortable dispute. This is another aspect of truth-telling, and it's both enlivening and irritating. Both light and shadow (which gives us color!)

What I've learned about truth is it's not a possession, as in "I have The Truth." It's a realm, a place you can visit, and listen, but cannot grab onto and possess once and for all.

I remember a story about a Native American elder who, when he was being sworn in to give testimony in a court proceeding and was asked to swear to give "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," responded with something like, "I can't tell the whole truth. I can only tell you what I know."

Anonymous said...

I just read your post and feel how ironic it is that I'm very much going through similar issues. My husband suffers with anxiety and is very good at not wanting to see the truth in situations. It is extremely difficult as I feel the truth and then he's very good at denial. So I sit in my own love and honour him for his choice in this now moment.Thanks.
In Love and Light.