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The Right Course of Action
Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
I have been called a hypocrite by a friend simply because I was not honest and outspoken enough to speak the truth in her presence. The daughter of a lady whom I know very well often comes to see me. Though she is very young and I am an aged person, I am lucky that she is so close to me. She confides in me regarding all her problems and asks my advice about so many things. Her mother does not object to her friendship with me. Rather she told me that she was glad that her daughter had so much faith in me, since she was sure that I would give her only good advice. Whether her faith on me was reasoble or not, I could not say. But one thing was sure that I would never misguide her or give her wrong advice.
She is a sweet girl in her teens — a bit plump perhaps — which is only too tural in her age. But the poor thing is so sensitive about her overweight that she has become a bore to live with, as her mother remarked ruefully. All the time she harps on her overweight, looking at the mirror every now and then, till her family feel like screaming in annoyance. She has been practicing dieting since some weeks to reduce her weight. But her dieting process is erratic. The problem is that she has a sweet tooth and simply cannot lay off chocolates, pastries, and other sweet things, as she herself admitted in despair. So nobody takes her dieting seriously, least of all her family.
She came to see me last Sunday while one of my friends and myself were relaxing over a cup of tea. The girl came at her Sunday best with a big smile. I asked her in a light manner if she had won a lottery to look so smug and happy. She replied happily, “It is better than that, Aunty. My weighing machine has recorded a decrease of 5 kilograms in my weight. Isn’t that wonderful? Don’t I look slim? I am so happy”.
I looked at her — a very sweet and charming girl. But whatever her weighing machine might have indicated, she did not seem to have reduced. I was wondering how to tell her the truth tactfully without hurting her. But even before I could open my mouth, my friend, an outspoken and honest lady by any standard, said firmly, “No, you do not look at all slim. But keep up your dieting. It might do you some good some day”.
The girl flushed to the root of her hair and she immediately fled with a murmured apology. I felt very sad and told my friend apologetically that perhaps she should not have said that, since the girl was dreadfully hurt. But the lady was not at all repentant. She snorted and said scornfully, “You are a hypocrite. I am not afraid of speaking the truth”.
After she left I pondered over her remark. Was I really a hypocrite? If covering up a harsh truth with a coating of sugar is hypocrisy, then perhaps I am a hypocrite. But for me, tact is more important than the bare cruel truth. I am of course not supporting those vicious lies which are harmful. But I believe that truthfulness does not imply a licence for rudeness. Some people, who claim to be truthful, do not mind whom they hurt with their acid tongue. I think that it is permissible to speak a white lie, since it does not harm anybody. If a lady, with her newest hairstyle, asks for my opinion regarding her looks, should I say that she looks hideous even if it happened to be the truth?
I must confess that once I made this grave mistake. A particularly close friend of mine asked for my opinion regarding her looks in her new sari. She came in a bizarre mix of a violet sari and a red blouse, with layers of cosmetic on her face. She looked awful. I wondered why she dressed in such a peculiar way. Usually she dressed decently and in a sober way. I could not understand why she dressed in such odd way on that day. She told me cheerfully, “I am going to a party. That is why I am dressed in such a colourful way. Actually my daughter urged me to dress in such a bright sari. She told me that I looked very dull in my simple and plain clothes. "Tell me how I look. I want the bare truth. No sugar-coating for me. Thank you”.
Fool that I was, I told her the truth as she demanded. The lady’s face clouded over. She turned on her heels and left me without a word. Till now she has not come to my house. If I meet her somewhere she talks to me in a cold manner. I realized sadly that I had added another me to my long list of enemies. So you see where truth has led me. Hence I have decided never to speak the truth which might hurt another person. But the problem is that there is only a thin line of demarcation between hypocrisy and tact.
As William Blake had remarked in his Auguries of Innocence:
“A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent”.
I think that is very true. If a truth is said with bad intention it can be worse than all the lies one can invent. Many people are proud to claim that they always speak the truth, and never tell lies even to save somebody from pains. They think themselves to be strictly honest. Now in our young days I remember our teacher drumming into our heads the adage that “honesty is the best policy”. Maybe that is true. But now in my advanced age I have realized that sometimes honesty may lead to disastrous consequences. As a wise person remarked, “The statement that ‘honesty is the best policy’ makes good rhyme, but bad logic.” That is a fact. Sometimes too much honesty may result in a very unpleasant situation. But there are some people who do not care whom they hurt with their egoistic pride of being exceptiolly honest and truthful.
If a harmless white lie can bring joy and happiness to somebody, then why should we stick to unpleasant truth, which does nothing but bring sorrow to the person? I know that truth is commendable and truthful, and honest persons deserve our respect and praise, though such persons have become scarce in the present era. I suppose that it is good in a way. An abundance of such honest and tactless persons would surely cause havoc in society. Maybe, ethics or moral science will not support my conviction that if a lie can bring joy to people without hurting or harming anybody, then we may adhere to lies. I do not endorse a truth which is painful to somebody and such a kind of unpleasant truth may bring disaster to some people.
Indian philosophy is highly ethical and it supports spirituality. Indian people in ancient times never approved any immoral action. They always supported truth and honesty. Mahatma Gandhi was a firm believer in truth. He declared that Truth is God. He was not prepared to accept a God if he was anything but Truth. Yet some Indian scholars have said,
“Satyam bruyat priyam bruyat
Satyam api apriyam bruyat.”
(Say the truth which is pleasant. Even if it is true, do not say what is unpleasant.)
I am all for this wise statement. There are some people who inorditely feel proud to say that they never tell lies. The lady, who came to my place the other day, told me proudly that she was never afraid to speak the truth. She also said that she does not care whom she hurts with her adherence to truth. She has already made several enemies with her bitter tongue. She told me the other day with immense pride, “I don’t care if my honest and truthful remarks hurt somebody. A spade is a spade for me and I hate lies”.
Yet I myself noticed that this truthful lady did not like when her friend told the truth about her appearance. She told me angrily that her friend told her that she was getting fat and her dress did not suit her age. The lady came to my place only the other day and started her tirade against her friend. She said that she had gone to visit her friend and asked her opinion about her dress. Then she angrily said, “She has no manners. She told me that I looked awful in my new sari, which does not suit me. According to her, I have become fat and look very old. You know me. I like people to speak the truth. But what she said is not the truth. It is plain vindictiveness. I have not become fat. That is what my mirror shows.”
I did not say anything, but could not help thinking about the contrary ture of the lady. She always prided on her ability to speak the truth. But when somebody else did that, she became angry. Truth became vindictiveness if another person spoke the truth about her appearance. She really looked fat and old. Her dress did not suit her. It was the plain truth.
I realize that one should not say certain things to another if they hurt the person concerned. If somebody wanted your honest opinion on his or her appearance, you should know that the person wanted your praise and not some adverse comments. That is the actual fact.
So I opt for telling white lies that would bring a smile to the other person.