Tag Archives: Self-Honesty

What Lies Beneath

I’ve been reading an absorbing article in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, entitled, “Why We Lie.”  I’m going to guess that it might be the most widely-read article that the magazine has ever published; as the article posits, we all lie, and  the title draws us to want to understand ourselves a little better, since most of us regard that characteristic as a negative.  (Why do I choose to do that, anyway?)

The article is fascinating and full of the reasons and motivations for our lies.  (Gosh, it even makes me feel bad to write that line.)  Some of our deceptions are protective, some are ego-driven, some are avoidance-based and some are even altruistic: lies intended to help someone or avoid their discomfort.  (Can I claim ownership to this category as my only source of lies?)  It turns out that we all have dishonesty built into our makeup.

“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at.  We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends and loved ones.  Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”

Wow.  I never realized the extent of the dark deceit that surrounds each of us.  Certainly, I acknowledge the ubiquity of lies in everyday life: (does “fibs” make that sound less awful?).   Advertisements promise results that could never be true, tabloid magazines publish stories with no semblance to reality, political pundits dish out speculation and innuendo without any basis in fact, and social media simply multiplies the problem.  But, within our own circle of family and friends?  (I wonder now whether those kind words about my sweater were sincere or sinister?)

The reality of our lying makes working in Nicaragua even more difficult than it might otherwise be.  Already, I must navigate relationships and circumstances through translation and my North American eyes.  Now, in addition, I read that there are also untruths being spoken, even if for the very best and most reasonable of reasons: hunger, shelter, health, life itself.  I’m not naive; I am well aware of the frequency of exaggeration and overstatement by people in dire need of assistance, financial and otherwise.  But reading an entire article about it underscores what has been mostly an uncomfortable subtext.  (Truth be told, now, it feels more omnipresent and, somehow, more problematic than before.)  Should the possibility of half-truths suddenly feel more offensive insulting or more threatening?

I’ve thought about that and decided that the answer is likely “no.”  If the article in National Geographic is even close to being accurate, we’ve all been subject to speaking and hearing lies during our entire lives.  There is nothing new happening here, only some data to confirm it.  It’s a bit like enduring a destructive overnight storm and awakening in the morning to read details about what you have already personally experienced.   (I swear, the hail stones were the size of melons!)

But there’s another reality which mitigates any sense of wrong that I might feel after being lied to.   When someone utters an untruth, often he/she is the one who is most hurt by it.  Lies can be like items posted on the Internet, in that they never really go away.  (All lies should be marked as spam.)  They continue to exist, hiding in memory until the moment when they can cause the maximum in embarrassment  and loss.  Falsehoods diminish who we are by eroding our credibility, our connection to truth, and to our own self-worth.  And those erosions hurt.  A deliberate lie to someone else is also a lie to ourselves, made even worse because we know the truth.  The conflict is, ultimately, wrenching.  (Is this why on some days I don’t feel as well as on others?)

We each have little in this world that is truly ours.  (What about my guitars?)  Material items come into our lives, and then they go.    The people in our lives enter and exit.  Always.  We take nothing from this world but our own integrity and sense of honor, two matters about which we can attempt to lie to ourselves, but without success.  It’s true in politics, in business, in farming, philanthropy and any other endeavor we can imagine.

I doubt that reflections here will have much impact on people in their day-to-day correspondence with each other; as the article observes, it’s “in us.”  But like any nagging habit, we can work on it.  We can make it better.   Ultimately, our well-being is built upon what is real, and whoever we are, truth will out….

 

 

 

 

The Problems with Privilege

One of my daughters, Molly,  has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege.  She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege.  It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege.  It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students.  Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context.  Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds.  (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)

But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy.  She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.

The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants.  We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life.  We want to be “first in line.”  It might be first in line for a new technology.  We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets.  We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others.  We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay.  We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work.  Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays.  It’s in us instinctively.   Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are.  We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.

The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives.  Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom.  For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us.  We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below.  All of us are more privileged than some.  Some are more privileged than most.  Most are more privileged than the least.  I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most.  So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”

Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it.  We seem to feel as though everyone else has it.  No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives,  we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged.  The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others.   There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention.  But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.

Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less.  The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been  cause for debate throughout our history.  It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government.  That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.

If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation.  It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion.  But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….

 

My Close Personal Friend

I have a friend who is very close to me.  He reads every one of the observations posted here and has done so since I began the practice in 2007.  Sometimes he likes what I have written and sometimes he does not, but he is never shy about letting me know what he thinks, one way or another.  Thus, there are days when I’m glad that he reads my reflections and other days when I’m not.

I guess I experienced one of those latter occasions last week.  He challenged me on my tendency to write these essays in terms of “we” and “our,” whether referring to Winds of Peace or to the population at large. He wondered if I shouldn’t make my challenges more personal.  “Not everyone is the same,” he reminds me, as if I didn’t already know.  I responded by defending my practice in the name of anonymity and inclusiveness: if readers might be touched in some way or possibly see themselves in the words, they can choose to take them to heart or not.  If they don’t identify with what I have to say, they can at least understand that I haven’t attempted to indict or accuse anyone.  If the shoe fits, it’s to be worn.

Of course, my friend raises the idea from the perspective of one who might not recognize himself as someone who could benefit from greater introspection.  If he did so, he’d be grateful that I write for the broadest audience in order to preserve anonymity.  But taking his challenge to heart, I decided to offer some observations about his own circumstances, to be as direct and personal as I can be.  Naturally, I will not go so far as to use his name.  That way, maybe others will identify with my descriptions of him, while at the same time his privacy will be preserved.

He is a generous fellow, kind to family and friends and quick to offer smiles and greetings to strangers.  Yet  I think he has adopted a rather miserly perspective when faced with bigger issues, like homelessness or global and local hunger.  He gives, but given his circumstances, he could do so much more.

He can be moved to tears and express emotion at injustices and will often rail loudly against the powers and circumstances that conspire to marginalize vast segments of the world’s population.  But I have noticed that he is equally quick to turn away from such realities in an effort to insulate himself or numb the emotions.  He can become curiously inert.  He is an eager onlooker but reticent participant.

He has spoken loudly in criticism of the power of the wealthy and the inordinate influences that such people exercise in nearly every venue of life.  I have frequently reminded him, however, that on the “global wealth continuum,” for every person on that scale above him at whom he points in judgement, there are many more looking up and pointing at him, as well.

He speaks often about the disparities of education, opportunity and material success.  I have even heard him speak to audiences on such topics; he can make a convincing case about the dire impacts of such gaps.  Yet from my own perspective, his life is one that has been earmarked by education, opportunity and success, realities undeserved but which he has never eschewed.

He is a “green” guy, having embraced lots of evolving technologies for renewable energy in his home and transportation.  I admire that in him, but the size of his home(s) and the comforts with which he has surrounded himself perhaps belie the depth of his commitment. More modest accommodations might be more convincing.

He attends church regularly.  I think that’s a good sign, one that suggests a search for grounding and meaning beyond himself and the unknowns which characterize life.  I also happen to know that he is relatively inactive in church affairs beyond the weekly service itself, perhaps another expression of insulation and independence, or maybe just another symptom of a stingy soul.

Well, I have been more than personal in my reflections here.  I could say more but I do not intend injury with my comments.  In responding to him in this way, I simply want to offer a juxtaposition of perceptions regarding someone I care about, a fellow who, like most of the rest of us, tries but falls short of who and what he could be.  I’m sure that I’ll be the first to know his reactions to all of this.  I suspect that he will mirror my own observations.  And I’m sure he’ll have some words for me….

 

 

How Far Can You See?

IMG_4884Spend any time around an ocean beach or any huge body of water and sooner or later someone gazing out over the water will be asked, “How far can you see?”  It’s an inevitable question and one which the beachcomber invariably cannot answer.  How far is that horizon, anyway?  Can you see what’s there?

We humans can see about 3 miles into the distance, before the horizon disappears with the curvature of the earth.  We can also detect a galaxy 2.6 million light years away, to a time when the first galaxies formed.  With the barest of light, we can see in the dark.  Our eyesight is a remarkable sense, indeed.

There’s another category of sightedness that begs the same sort of question, “how far can you see?”  It’s the view forward, what we can see or anticipate for the future, and what that portends for our current circumstances.  Understandably, we tend to be less accomplished in this effort, because what we endeavor to see is not yet physically visible.  So we do our best to impute, deduce, and imagine.

Many entities try to see, with varying degrees of success.  Within the communities of Nicaragua, leaders often pretend to see bright opportunity for their constituents, when the real view is only one of self-aggrandizement or patriarchal gatekeeping.  For its part, the U.S. government is afflicted with a malady which prevents its elected representatives from seeing much beyond the end of the day; it virtually defines short-sightedness.  Some business leaders work very hard to see into the future, though for many their acuity dims after about one quarter on the calendar.  Fortune-tellers would have us believe that they can see the future with clarity, but I don’t think they do much better than the rest of us.   Unfortunately, too many of us simply hope that the future will be as we might wish it, without working to shape it.

The reality is that in order to “know” the future and create a means to it, we have to be pretty clear about what is happening at present.  That work is more difficult than it sounds, as we tend to fall prey to factors like misinformation, data that makes us look different than we actually are, shorter-term motives and even egos.  If we start from a point of obfuscation, the chances of shaping a realistic future direction are very slim.  But knowing the truth requires self-honesty and discipline, characteristics that are cultivated through courage and practice.

Unfortunately, most of us lack sufficient courage or practice  to express openly those shortcomings and mistakes that have impeded our sight.  Since it isn’t a comfortable or easy thing to do, we don’t practice it much.  And that lack of practice, in turn, renders us less courageous, less open to understanding our truths and being able to use them as the basis for where we’d like to go.  It’s a vicious circle that ever-lessens our ability to see what might be.  And without such vision, we limit where we can choose to go.  We simply can’t see that far.

Later this Spring, a certificate program for cooperatives will be taught in the rural reaches of Nicaragua.  The program will be more than a week in duration, as rural producers will come together to learn holistically about seeing a future of their own making, to create the conditions and circumstances which can better allow those visions to become reality, to open their eyes to their own truths.  Like staring into a bright light after an immersion in darkness, there will be discomfort, disorientation and maybe even even distress.  But like the gradual adjustment our eyes make to that bright light, the emerging views will become clear and free from the drowsy effects of the dark.  And the courage, the practice, the habit, of far-sightedness just may take root in people eager to see further than ever before.  (I’ll be sure to write about the process in April, after the workshop has been completed.)

Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to keep asking the question of myself, “How far can you see?”  It’s one of those introspective probes that just might help me prepare myself for the future….