About the ethics of honesty: how spiritual lies deal with guilt

Being honest is one of my main virtues. I hate lying and I like to tell the truth. I believe that being honest is very important for being genuine, something which is becoming increasingly rare these days. When someone ask me how I am doing, they will get a general answer. But when they ask me what I am busy thinking about, I am happy to share very intimate processes which I am dealing with. I believe that we all deal with the same issues and when you share your processes, you can help others in their process as well. However, lately I realized that from an ethical perspective, in some cases I need to stop being honest. I call this spiritual lies. Spiritual lies are when you are not honest about something, because the other is not able to handle your truth. You do not need to feel guilty about spiritual lies.

I am not the only one who values honesty. Honest can be seen as a main characteristic of the Dutch culture: we are very open and direct. Often in social interactions (family, friends, relationships) we would say that everything can be said. It is the same Protestant notion that makes us keep the curtains of our front windows open: we don’t have anything to hide, right?! This honesty is however limited to a certain level. When you go outside of the social boundaries, your head will be chopped of. In Dutch this is called: ‘je hoofd boven het maaiveld uitsteken’ (standing out from the crowd). The choice is either to conform yourself to the group or do as you please, but become a liar (and expelled) when you get caught.

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Let me further explain my concept of spiritual lying. We can be honest about a whole bunch of things, but let say we can be honest about either facts or opinions. Being honest about facts is important. When you accidentally bump into someone’s car when parking, you need to man up and leave your insurance details. Honesty about opinions is more difficult. Other people’s personal and social convictions and rules are at stake here. When what you want to say falls within the convictions of your audience, you can easily be honest. At my work it is perfectly fine to say that I was drunk the whole weekend. But what I cannot say is that I have been smoking pot the whole weekend. This is because this lies without the social convictions of my work space.

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When something lies outside someone’s convictions, then you might still be able to tell what you believe, when you have an explicit agreement that you can be honest with each other. Usually this is between close friends. Implicitly, this is an agreement for change of convictions (growth). For example, when I perform adultery and I share this with my previously faithful friend and he understands it he might also become adulterous. Thus, when you have opinions which lie outside the boundaries of your audience it is perfectly fine for you to lie spiritually. There is no need to feel guilty about this.

Spiritual lies can be a form of compassion towards the other. Because when you share a spiritual truth with someone who is not yet ready for it, you force them to grow spiritually. And because it takes time to grow, this is like spiritual force-feeding. It is like throwing pearls before swine’s which would turn them into humans before Circe’s curse is worn out properly. It is like breaking the egg from the outside instead of from the inside. Everybody has the right on their own spiritual process on their own time. In these cases it is OK not to tell certain things. And, since you also have the right of your own spiritual process at the same time, spiritual lies are important.

I found a couple of examples about truth and honesty in movies.

The first one ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW5u4cCsNUY  )is from the movie The Fisher King. Here one guy called Parry is delusional and his friend tries to snap him out of it by telling the truth. However, Parry needs his delusional world in order to remain sane after his trauma. The truth hurts him like boiling water. This is an example of trying to break the egg from the outside. You can only see those truths which you are able to handle.

The second example is from the movie A Few Good Men. This movie contains the famous court rant of Jack Nicholson ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtpOtFIEkbs ): ‘you want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!’ In this case the general believed that it was necessary to mortally discipline a marine, because of a treat to national security. In this movie there is a dispute about which rules apply: the social convictions of the American constitution of the rules of War. Jack Nicholson’s outburst refers to the reality of continuous threats, which the American people not want to see (social convictions). Hence his surprise when he gets arrested while he is trying to protect the nation from harm.

For me, the subject of honesty has become a bit more subtle than I initially thought. The idea of spiritual lies will help me with keeping genuine communications with others without feeling guilty about lying. The downside of spiritual lying is that people will no longer see you for who you really are. This can result in loneliness. For this is it important to at least have a couple of good friends which whom you can be completely honest. Alternatively, you can keep a diary or even start your own blog!

 

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