Life without lies
Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
Truth is very commendable and wise people have always advised people to stick to truth, whatever might be the consequences. In ancient era truth was the maxim adopted as a rule of conduct, and it was considered as a sin to tell lies. For them truth was sacred. In Indian philosophy the Absolute Reality or God is recognized as a synthesis of Truth, Good and Beauty (Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram). So Truth is an important constituent of God. Mahatma Gandhi worshipped Truth and for him Truth was God. He explicitly said that he did not care for a God if he was anything but truth. It is obvious that Truth has always been worshipped by the saints and the virtuous people.
turally the value of truth cannot be minimized. Even today when morality has become a thing of the past, everybody respects a truthful person and is contemptuous of those, who tell lies. It is very true that in this age we have hardly a person, who is so devoted to truth. Lying at the slightest pretext has become almost a habit with us. Yet it has to be admitted that truth is always appreciated by everybody as a very admirable virtue. Even consummate liars themselves realize that making intentiol false judgment is not right, though they themselves do it, lying comes turally to us, but everybody condemns it. The maxim “Satyameva Jayate” has become a catchy phrase.
Parents punish their children for telling lies; teachers punish students for the same offence, though they may themselves do it. We also know that telling lies have become very common, but nobody endorses it. Perhaps all of us like to be regarded as truthful persons to gain admiration from all around. There is no doubt that truth is a very admirable virtue and lying is a vice, as the moralists would say.
But sometimes, I believe, that lies are infinitely preferable to truth—not those vicious black lies, but the harmless, beneficial white lies. Margot Asquith said about Lady Desborough in ‘Listener’, “She tells enough white lies to ice a wedding cake”. Actually white lies are not at all harmful; rather they are beneficial to a great extent. Of course telling too many lies cannot be approved. But I believe that white lies in moderation are useful and often a necessary part of social life, which is used for the sole purpose of not hurting another person’s feelings and thereby creating an unfavourable situation.
There are many occasions when white lies help to oil the wheels and at times they are much better than dreary truth. I agree that certain truths are uvoidable, even though they are painful. On these occasions you have to speak the truth and you cannot possibly cover it up. But in most cases it is not difficult to conceal the truth, if it cheers up somebody and if it helps in spreading good will. For instance, I may have a particular book in my possession. If somebody makes me a gift of the same book to me, I suppose it would be kinder to the giver to make proper appreciation of the gift. It would not hurt me to say that I would love to read the book, though in actual fact the very sight of it might disgust me. Or, if I am invited to a dinner party and served with something I dislike, I should remember that the hostess had gone to enormous trouble to create a special meal for me, which just happens to be the one I dislike. In such cases white lies are essential.
Someone may ask my opinion regarding her new hair style, which perhaps looks hideous to me. But turally I cannot hurt her feelings by telling her the truth. Of course a dedicated truthful person may evade telling lies tactfully. For instance, if she does not like a particular food, specially prepared for her, she may perhaps say that it does not agree with her constitution. But even then the hostess will be terribly hurt and she would think that her specially prepared dinner had failed. Then why not deviate from truth once in a while, if it brings happiness to someone. Perhaps the guest may bravely swallow a few spoonfuls from the proffered dish which she dislikes. Then she may praise the food and express her satisfaction and joy at enjoying so ‘tasty’ a meal. No doubt, it will be a blatant lie. But surely it is better to tell a lie than saying the unpleasant truth and giving pain to the lady of the house. For me a lie is much better than a bitter truth, if it can bring joy to somebody.
Sometime back I had to undergo an operation and had to stay in a local hospital for a few days. There was a nurse, who was a very sweet girl. But she went about doing her work in a way that I am sure the “Lady with the Lamp” would not have approved. But she was such a nice person that I did not have the heart to tell her that her work was rather slipshod. So whenever she asked me if she had made me comfortable, I always replied in the affirmative. I also said that her cheerful countence was more than enough to make me and other patients happy and comfortable. Her beaming smile was the reward I received for my white lie. So I suppose that we have to tell many lies everyday to make people happy and they do not do a mite of harm to anybody. That way the world would be a better place to live in. If everybody is happy because of these lies, then we should certainly use them whenever necessary.
But we of course must not over-ice the cake by laying on flattery with a trowel, so indiscrimite and fulsome, that it is not believable. Everyone likes praise, but we know instinctively when it is overdone and unmerited. Flattery is an attempt to delude people for some persol gain and it does not do a mite of good to anybody. Very few persons may succumb to flattery, as most people know their limitations and get annoyed with exaggerated or insincere praise. I very well know my own limitations and I know that when people praise me to the sky, they are only trying to insult my intelligence with blatant lies. Nobody can bamboozle a sensible person with flattery and hence it should be avoided.
Actually very few of us tell black lies in deliberate contradiction to truth. But between the white and black, there is a dangerous area of grey lie. It cannot be detected by anyone but ourselves, and only by searching our own conscience can we know whether our standards of honesty have slipped a little. There are many opportunities to “bend the truth” a little. So it is between me and my conscience to decide whether the headache I have is a genuine reason for breaking my promise to a friend to accompany her to the dentist.
And there are times, when the truth goes by default, times when I should have spoken, but did not. R. L. Stevenson had remarked that “the cruellest lies are often told in silence”. Sometimes it happens that something discreditable is said about someone whom I know very well. I may also know that the remark against the person is completely unfair and unjustified, but still do not speak up in contradiction, as I do not want to fall out with other persons present or introduce a prickly tone to the party. But silence implies assent to the unfair remark and it would have been braver and more honest to have said something like, “I have never found her like that in all my dealings with her”. That kind of remark need not offend anybody.
I think that it is very wrong to keep quiet when some disparaging remark is made against somebody whom I know to be a very nice person and when I know that the remark against her is unjust. But we often maintain silence because of the feeling that by supporting the person against whom the discreditable remarks were levelled, we may antagonize the persons indulging in the gossip of unfair criticism. I myself often remain silent in such situations, though I know it to be wrong and cowardly. I suppose that to keep up good relations, we often gratify the gossips by compliance with their wishes. But it is a wrong policy and I know it very well. I also know that these kinds of silent lies are vicious and despicable.
But some lies are not only harmless, but they are extremely necessary as well. Take this incident. The other day I was talking to a lady who had come to visit me. A young girl, the daughter of a friend came to see me at that time. She often does that at any odd time—sometime on her way back from the school or on her way to the market, apparently to have some titbits like a slice of home-made cake or a biscuit, as she often tells me with a smile. She is a very charming girl, though plump, may be fifteen or sixteen years old. Her mother has always been worried about her daughter’s over-weight and has for ever been trying various means to reduce the girl’s weight, which in her view is excessive. That day she came to visit me on her way back from the school.
She looked jubilant and said that she had been dieting for several weeks and she believed that she had shed some of her fat. Apparently some of her school friends had told her that she was looking decidedly slim. She asked eagerly, “Auntie, don’t you think I have reduced a lot?” I looked at her and saw that she looked the same as before. But I did not know how to say the unpleasant truth. But before I could utter a word, the lady, who was sitting with me, said in her usual blunt manner, “I don’t think you have reduced at all. I see you same as before. But keep up your dieting. May be, it would do well some day.”
It was the truth of course—a bitter truth. The girl blushed to the root of her hair and her eyes glistened with unshed tears. She turned and left abruptly without a word. I really felt very sad for the young girl. The lady remarked with a snort, “This girl is not only fat, but ill-mannered as well. Look how she has left without saying anything to us. What manners!”
I looked at the lady in wonder. Did not she realize how hurt and sad the girl looked? And the fault was entirely hers. I told her tactfully that the girl was very young and felt very hurt at her disillusionment. I also told the lady that perhaps she could have softened the blow with tact. She said crushingly, “I don’t tell lies and told the girl the bare truth. A spade is a spade for me and I do not believe in sugar coating the truth”. I saw that she was not the least sorry for hurting the young girl with her strict adherence to truth. Perhaps she deserves praise for never deviating from the truth, however bitter and cruel that may be. I suppose emotion has no place in the matter of truth. I am no authority to comment on these codes of conduct. But my persol opinion is that, if necessary we have to sweeten the bitter truth or even say some white lies. I have heard that the wise sages did say that unpleasant truth must not be said (Satyam api apriyam bruyat). Actually for me it is not deceiving people, if we say some white lies. They are soothing and do not inflict pain on anybody.
If somebody asks for your opinion on her new dress, you cannot possibly say that it looks hideous on her. I think we may say that she looks nice, but perhaps not over-do our praising act. That is, moderate praise is better than speaking the bitter truth at certain times and there is no harm in it. As Atole France said “without lies humanity would perish of despair and boredom”. Actually sticklers for truth not only hurt some people, they also acquire many enemies by their truth-speaking. I have also added many new mes to my existing list of enemies by my tactless remarks. Let me tell you such an incident. Some time back I met an elderly portly lady at a wedding. Suddenly she accosted me with a big smile and asked me if I remembered her. I looked at her, but for the life of me, could not place her. The lady cheerfully said that we studied in the same class in the same school at my home town Jorhat. Now I was a school student more than half a century back. How could I possibly remember her? Even otherwise I have a very bad memory. I racked my brains in vain, but could not remember her at all. I should have said that I remembered her. But the fool that I was, I told her the truth that I could not remember her. The smile froze on the lady’s lips and her eyes blazed. I realized sadly that I had added another me to my long list of enemies.
I really believe that some lies are very necessary to maintain peace and happiness. It does not necessarily make one despicable for telling some harmless lies to make someone happy. They do not harm anybody, but they are like some wonderful tonic to make people happy and spread good will. Don’t you think so, dear reader?
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)