Telling the truth

Until you understand yourself, you offer truth from a sieve.  Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

Telling the truth is not as simple as it seems.  There are three interwoven elements of saying what is true:

  1. Telling the truth to yourself
  2. Understanding others
  3. Choosing the right expression
TELLING THE TRUTH TO YOURSELFSome people say ‘oh, I tell it like it is’, as though truth were simply a matter of blurting out whatever is in our heads.  Yes, it is a kind of directness, to splurge out, unfiltered, the contents of our minds.

But, if we are interested in participating in some kind of wider truth, then it will never be enough just to share basic directnesses such as ‘I am hungry’, ‘I like you’, or ‘I am unhappy’.  This is sharing our animal response to the world in word form – we may as well point to our mouths, or hug the other person, or cry.

To ecape our own selfishness, we can spend time contemplating what wider things we might understand to be true.  If we are not used to looking outside our own appetites, we may have to spend some considerable time exploring other world views.  We can learn other languages, read and listen to great thinkers, and meditate on our experience until we have a bigger handle on the universe.

We may discover, in the process, that we have been lying to ourselves, covering up the real world in order to feel better.  For instance, we may have been telling ourselves that we are surrounded by idiots – but we might discover that this was only to bolster our ego by denigrating other people.  Or we may have been holding certain political views – but we might discover that this was only to avoid having to change our comfortable and secure social position in the world.


Even if we have some developed understanding of what might be true, we still have the difficult task of communicating with others.  In particular, we need  to take account of the fact that:

  1. Other people have different ears
  2. Other people have different world views
  3. Other people may be deluded, mistaken or biased, just as we have often been
Everyone suffers from a partial view – partial in the sense of biased, and partial in the sense of incomplete.  Knowing this, we can adapt our understanding of how the truth needs to be told.  We don’t tell the truth to a child in exactly the same way as we do to an adult.  We exercise what is known as ‘theory of mind’ – the understanding that the other has a different experience from ours.  If we understand what the other understands, then we can convey our understanding in such a way as to suit where they are in their minds.This is the great teacher’s art: to know, in some detail, the pupil’s nature, and to handle that knowledge with great compassion.


Finally, even if we know ourselves and others, we still have the tricky business of choosing exactly how to communicate.

For the poet, this happens through the choice of words: their timing, meaning, cadence, sound, hardness, softness, placement, juxtaposition, function, general usage, specific usage, alternative meanings, overall flow, presentation on the page, sound out loud, past meanings, future meanings, ease of sensory absorption, memorability, chattiness, high-soundingness… and many other aspects of choice.  In fact, there are almost infinite choices.

For other artists, these choices will boil down to aspects of sight, sound, timing, texture, smell, taste… everything is chosen in the context of some kind of optimal communication.

When we are trying to speak truth, we are artists too.  There is often a better word we could choose, a better tone we could strike.  There are often better ways to use compassion and wisdom skilfully.

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When we speak, then, we can always work harder to apply self-understanding, understanding of the other, and choice of word and expression.  We are prolific factories, either of enlightenment, or of suffering.  By developing our skills, we can make sure that our communications avoid harming the truth, and are are helpful to it.