Telling the Truth

Telling the truth has always seemed like a moral imperative not to be questioned. It was drummed into my head when I was a young child — by strict parents, our parish priest, and a host of righteous nuns. The mere thought of a lie conjured threatening images of Satan with his forked tail and leering face and hellish flames roasting my toes like burnt marshmallows. But at age ten, I came into a deeper understanding of the principle of honesty.

One day I spilled indelible ink on my mothers white tablecloth with green ivy trim. After trying unsuccessfully to scrub out the vivid blue stains, I voluntarily went to her and showed her what I had done. This required considerable courage. Nothing was more frightening to me than my mother’s wrath (except perhaps my father’s).

“I spilled ink on your tablecloth and it won’t wash out,” I said, trembling inwardly. “I’m so sorry.”  Offering no excuses, I simply hung my head and waited, like a weakened gladiator facing the lion, resigned to my fate. Silence. Wondering what my punishment would be, I finally dared to look up. Ruined tablecloth in hand, my mother was smiling. “Thank you for telling me the truth,” she said in a gentle voice. “Don’t worry about the table cloth.”

That’s it! Nothing more was ever said about it.

This incident changed my life. I realized then that the fear or shame of being caught in a lie or evasion was far more unsettling than accepting the natural consequences of my actions. Once I understood this, doing the right thing became the only appropriate course of action. I let go, then and forever, of the temptation to lie, especially in the interest of self-protection.

Ironically, the only exception I made was when I went to confession. I was so sure the priest would not believe I had actually been good, that I fabricated sins. I’m certain now I was not the only one who did this. It was if we children knew that in order to uphold the sacred institution of weekly “Confession” we had to have sins to be forgiven. Otherwise, the priest would have nothing to do. Perhaps we had already been brainwashed to believe we were “sinners” and personal goodness was an illusion.

I pulled open the heavy oak door and entered the tiny enclosed confessional at the back of our church. Two cells adjoined either side of a central compartment, where the priest sat in supposed anonymity. The door slowly closed, separating me from the line of waiting penitents. Alone in quiet darkness, I knelt on the thickly padded pew. I could see the dim form of the priest through a double-screened window, but it was not yet my turn. He was busy absolving someone else’s indiscretions. When the window grate finally slid open, it was my signal to begin. Against the measured cadence of the priest’s breath, only inches away, I would speak the prescribed words.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. These are my sins.” Then I invented my offenses with whatever came to mind. “I hit my sisters five times, I disobeyed twice, I told three lies…”

The priest’s hunched silhouette seemed to contemplate my wrongdoing for a moment. Then he whispered through the gauzy screen, “For your penance say five “Our Fathers” and four “Hail Marys”. The grate closed again with a raspy sound, and I rose to leave the confessional. Always, I dutifully and willingly complied with the penance in spite of my innocence, knowing that the weekly ritual had once again been properly fulfilled.

The question remains: what is truth? Years later, as an adult, I face a new quandary. In Toastmasters, I’m told that it’s okay to fabricate details in an improvisational speech to increase its entertainment value. Moreover, my writing instructor urges us to make up dialogue and background details, when necessary, to render a non-fiction piece more interesting. Heaven forbid! (And I mean that literally.) For me this is like trying to split a piece of firewood with a big knot in it. I just can’t do it. Besides, if I tell an untruth, then I’d have to go back to confession (ha!), which I haven’t done in many years.

Truth is relative. I suppose that is what I’m learning. We are left to ponder its vagaries, much as we do the changing weather. Mark Twain says, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”. But then he states, “Never tell the truth to those unworthy of it.”

Emily Dickinson quips, “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.” She also counsels, “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.”

Another illuminating thought about truth comes from physicist Niels Bohr. “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

Even my spiritual mentor says that, in our zeal to be honest, we should not, for example, broadcast our faults and weaknesses to others. They may use them against us if, on some later occasion, they wish to poke fun at us or hurt us. He says we should simply speak and act in a way that will bring lasting happiness to ourselves and others. This seems to capture it perfectly. By way of illustration, he poses a dilemma in which knife-wielding robbers are pursuing a young man, who barely manages to evade them by dashing into an alley. If the robbers were to approach us and ask which way their would-be victim had gone, would we tell them the truth? Of course not. Once again, truth is shown to be relative, if not downright fickle, and sometimes quite elusive. Yet every one of us is compelled to seek it, over and over again.

I rest my case.

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Tricia Narana McDowell