God and Greatness: Honesty and/or Truth

This is a bit of a puzzler….

Y’see, I’m a fantasy writer. I write fiction. Not, y’know, professionally, because apparently it’s not good enough. Pah. But deep down, that’s who I am. A storyteller. That’s quite apparent to all of you, of course.

And in the course of becoming that, you have to confront the possibility that making up stories is the same thing as lying. In fact, that’s a popular way of describing little children who tell lies — “he’s telling stories again.”

But at the heart of all good art is a lie. Every piece says, “The world is this way.” And the world is not that way. The world is more complex, or uglier or, in some cases, much prettier. Art is not reality — it’s an expression of reality.

And unless you’re growing up in an extremely fundamentalist household (which I wasn’t), it’s pretty easy to realize that our culture recognizes the value of a story as literature. So that little moral qualm quickly passes.

(Note that this hasn’t always been so. You may be aware that theater still has a lingering reputation of being a little skanky, for some reason. There was a time when the Church — and, for reference, this was a time when the phrase “the Church” could only refer to one institution — made it very clear that telling fictional tales was the equivalent of bearing false witness, and pretending to be someone you weren’t was nearly as bad. Morality plays got by, because they were a method of teaching Bible stories to the illiterate masses, but drama was strictly forbidden.)

Anyway, the point I’m getting at is this: from a very early age, I’ve been wrestling with the difference between truth and honesty. And I’ve generally been losing that match, too. When I was in middle school, I told some laughably ludicrous lies about my own past, about who I was. It made sense to me — I had just moved to a new state, and a new school, and none of these people knew my story, so when they started asking about it, why tell them a boring tale? Y’know? So I made up something with some flash and dazzle.

My whole life I’ve lied, to be perfectly honest.

(Yeah, that line made me smile.)

And this post comes from several discussions I’ve had with all of you, and those with Daniel and Toby particularly. There are clearly times when telling not-truth is okay. There are times, at least according to social convention, when it’s actually good. But, clearly, there are times when telling not-truth is quite destructive.

What’s the line? When is honesty right, and when is it just anti-social? Daniel and Toby have both, at some point, come to the conclusion that our society is far too comfortable with untruth — that what we need in our lives is a great deal more honesty. Instinctively and intellectually, I disagree.

There’s a thing I know. I’m not quite sure where or when I learned it, except that it would’ve been sometime before high school. See, the Ten Commandments include that one rule, “Do not murder.” Well, in Aramaic (that’s right, isn’t it?), there are several different verbs for “to kill.” There is a generic word that means to end another person’s life. There is a word that refers to killing in battle, and another that refers to a judicial execution. And, finally, there is the word that we would translate “murder.” It doesn’t necessarily imply specific circumstances, but it states that this killing is socially and legally forbidden, and therefor a criminal act.

The commandment against murdering is precisely that. I know people who are against the death penalty on the grounds that the Ten Commandments forbid killing. That’s what I’m getting at. The commandment specifically doesn’t forbid execution, it forbids the act that the person is getting executed for. (And, since I’m here, I should pretty much state that I don’t think the Ten Commandments should be considered the primary deciding factor in decisions concerning present-day American judicial policy. Just that I know people who do.)

But, back on topic, I wish that I knew the relevant Aramaic to let myself off the hook for the lying thing. That is, I kinda wish I could appeal to some higher source, and get those boundaries of what’s wrong, what’s okay, and what’s right.

I guess since we’re at the Ten Commandments, I’ll glance at them real fast. The phrase there is, “bear false witness,” and I get that the phrase is not just referring to witnesses in criminal proceedings. However, it does imply a certain degree of specificity that I’m comfortable with. Telling a story for entertainment purposes is not the same as claiming, “and because Superman did that, you have to vote Republican.” That is, claiming that the implications of a fictional story impact the hearer’s (or reader’s) life in a compelling way.

Hmm…I think I’m back to Christian Leadership here, in a way. I guess I feel that the difference between a story and a lie is that a lie is forced upon the hearer (or, presented in such a way that it will be taken as forced), whereas a story is presented as an opportunity for the hearer, to take or not at his discretion.

That’s a fairly vague line, though, and it doesn’t cover nearly enough of the ground I need to cover. What about self-image? People have this amazing tendency to become what they believe they are. Tell a child that he’s a genius, and you’ll be surprised how smart he turns out. Tell a child he’s an athlete, and he’ll be incredibly apt. Tell a kid he’s an idiot and a bum, and he will be. There are limits, naturally, but a person’s self-image clearly and consistently guides his future development.

Given that, there is value in telling un-truth for the sake of growth. It’s what our myths are all about. We say, “a man can be like Hercules,” not because anyone ever particularly was like Hercules, but because focusing on that potential encourages us to grow toward it. That’s the beautiful value of ideals. Ideals are not real (and therefore not true). They are better than true. They are honest.

Then again, a dishonest person could use that very line of reasoning to destructively conceal his own failings — to justify a lie, in fact. Sure, I’m an alcoholic (not me — this is just an example), but I don’t want to be an alcoholic, I know I shouldn’t be an alcoholic, and so I will claim not to be in the hopes of growing into that potential. I will sneak and hide what I am, telling a lie for the greater good.

How is that different from telling your child that he’s a genius, in the expectation of him becoming one? To bring it into closer parallel, let’s talk about playing along with someone who’s pretending not to be an alcoholic. Believing that he can become sober, you pretend, with him, that he already is. How is that different from encouraging your child toward a potential he has not yet indicated? How is it, fundamentally, different from saying, “No, honey, that outfit does not make your butt look big”?

Honestly, I don’t know. I recognize that it’s a real problem, because a broken person’s best hope of getting fixed, is in his recognizing the break. However, I also believe that a person’s best chance of becoming something incredible, is in convincing himself that it is perfectly credible.

Hmm…I’ve come to no conclusion here — just raised some issues. Please feel free to carry on the argument. I look forward to the discussion.

3 Replies to “God and Greatness: Honesty and/or Truth”

  1. No deeper analysis from me…I share your dilemma at discerning the difference between truth and honesty, and I don’t have the answers, either.

    That said, here’s a thought regarding your example of the alcoholic:

    I think it depends on motive. Not the this-is-what-I-think-my-motive-is, but instead the way-down-deep-honest ;o) -to-goodness heart motive.

    A parent who encourages intelligence in a child by telling the child s/he’s a genius–that parent has a pure, loving motive, wanting the child to excel and fulfill every ounce of potential.

    But the alcoholic in your example isn’t operating from such pure motives. The alcoholic’s deep-down motivation is to deceive self and others so as to continue in self-destructive behavior.

    The one person is building up, the other is tearing down. The one “lie” builds up, the other “lie” tears down. And maybe that’s the difference we’re trying to pin down.

    And sometimes, maybe God is the only one who can recognize it.

  2. That makes a lot of sense. I actually use that as my standard for consuming media, interestingly enough. Even when they’re “just stories,” I find I have no patience at all for stories that tear down the audience. I feel like the whole purpose of fiction (and possibly of creative media) is that same building up that has us lie to our kids. If I wanted a bleak glimpse into the darkness of the human condition, I’d go downtown.

  3. And that is exactly why I don’t watch the news: I already know about the bleakness; I’ve seen enough examples of it already. “Nothing new under the sun,” and so forth.

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