I spent my youth believing in truth at all costs. It didn’t matter how painful, the truth must be told. The truth was my religion, and lies, of any sort, were sacrilege. At the beginning of my senior year of high school, my dad and I sat in our local diner eating French friends and drinking milkshakes.
“So, what’s going to happen with you and Eric now that he’s off at college?” Eric was my first love, my “soul-mate” in my 17-year-old perspective. He was, however, a year older and went off to college while I still had a year left in high school.
“Oh,” I explained to my dad assuredly. “We’re going to stay together, but we will have an open relationship.”
“That sounds interesting,” my dad, the renowned divorce lawyer said with, I’m sure, all the equilibrium he could muster. “Tell me about it.”
“Well,” I explained. “Of course we’ll stay together forever because we are soul-mates and will always be together. But since we are far away we’ll both be free to date other people. Of course, we’ll be completely open and honest with each other, though, and tell each other about anything that happens with someone else.”
There was silence. My dad smiled, took a deep breath and said, “Let me make sure I understand this: you will date other people, then you will tell each other about it and you will still stay together forever?”
“Of course,” I replied, emphatically, a surety that only 17-year-olds can have.
My father’s final comment should win him the blue ribbon in parenting a teenager: “Well that sounds very interesting. I look forward to hearing how it works out for you.”
My dad, who had spent decades divorcing couples, first through litigation and then through mediation, knew, of course, that there was no way this would work. He knew that truth, here, could not possibly stand stronger than the pain, anguish and jealousy Eric and I would each feel at the idea of our beloved dating someone else. But he was smart enough not to tell me that, for I would not have been able to hear it at that time.
To me, truth was the highest good. Truth was both the means and the end. There was nothing that truth could not solve, accomplish or overcome. To imply that anything other than truth would have been a more effective way of maintaining a relationship was unthinkable. Of course the full truth had to be told, and of course, that was the highest good.
When I arrived in India, eight years after that conversation with my dad and seven years after Eric and I broke up, I discovered that most Indians consider the truth quite bendable. When I confronted people about the lies they told me, the answer was always the same, “I didn’t want to upset you, so I lied.” It never occurred to them that I would be much more upset by their lie than by whatever unpleasant situation they were trying to shield me from.
However, over the years I have discovered so many areas in which what I thought was not the highest wisdom. Truth is one of those areas. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna gives a beautiful teaching on “tapas of speech,” the right speech, spiritual speech, dharmic speech. What he tells us is that dharmic speech must actually fulfil three criteria: it must be true, it must also be kind, and it must be beneficial.
There is a package that truth must come in, in order for it to be dharmic speech. Just being true isn’t enough. We must always ask ourselves, is it also kind? Is it also beneficial? And of course, Lord Krishna doesn’t say two out of three is enough. This is a 100 per cent or nothing rule. There is no credit for 66.6 per cent!
It’s not enough to be kind and beneficial but not true. This is why the little white lies that are so pervasive are actually, while convenient, not actually dharmic speech and don’t help anyone in the long run.
It is also, however, not enough to be true without being kind and beneficial. I have learned over the decades that the bottom-line truth is not always the kindest nor the most beneficial. My former truth at any cost, it-may-hurt-but-it’s-the-truth-so-you-need-to-hear-it-and-I-need-to-speak-it belief system is not the fullest or highest commitment to right speech.
I have learned to judge my own and others’ speech by a wider and more subtle criteria: Is this truth also kind? Is it also beneficial? Does it, in the words of a great Buddhist teacher, improve upon the silence? If not, then this may be a time when silence is the highest virtue.