Monday, November 19, 2012

Honesty and Compliments

I recently obtained an armband inscribed with the words “Tell the Truth!” I now wear it constantly as a reminder to live by that principle. 
For the phrase signifies that a man's thoughts and arguments must accord with what is true, and that his actions must also accord with his beliefs. It is a reminder to me to live up to a standard which I constantly fail at, but must always seek to attain.
Too often we choose to spare others the telling of unpleasant yet necessary truths. In sparing others from hard but necessary reality, we harm them. For we allow people to foster illusions about themselves that have no basis in reality, and allow them to persist in their error.
One example of this is in the realm of compliments. Many compliment people whose actions do not merit praise, in order to spare their feelings or to obtain things from them. I sometimes find myself giving undeserved praise to others, because it is much easier to make someone feel good about himself than to tell him hard but necessary truths.
But my lack of honesty comes with a terrible price. Because I know that all my compliments are not genuine, I find myself questioning the honesty of compliments I receive. Every “good job” and “well done” is a source of confusion, an occasion for carefully parsing out the meaning of each word and gesture. Instead of accepting and learning from praise, I attempt to determine whether words signify true praise, a throwaway line, sarcasm, or a veiled insult.  
Compliments sincerely given are poisoned by those that are false. One lie poisons the well of truth, no matter how pure the original water.
This is not to say that one should go about willy-nilly telling the faults of others. Truth divorced from other virtues is a dangerous thing (as I have noted elsewhere).  We must not tell truths with the potential of destroying the good name of others, for example. (In Catholic theology, this is known as the sin of detraction.)
But nor must be lie and tell others that their mediocre actions are good. It is not a good thing for individuals to perpetually live in a bubble free of criticism. Individuals in healthy relationships must challenge one another.
We live in an age which demands the cloak of civility over our true feelings. Many friendships and even relationships simply could not survive without it. But it is better not to lie and perpetuate a veil of illusion.

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