Excerpted & edited from an essay recently published in The Atlantic magazine, author Michael Leviton. This excerpt provides foundation & context for this Q&A.
When I was a child, my father played a game I enjoyed. Wherever we went, he'd predict what strangers were about to say or do. In a store he'd point out the salesman and explain, "When I say how much I will spend, they'll immediately show me something more expensive" which happened exactly as Dad predicted. At my first concert, Dad told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling, everyone would cheer wildly, the performer would then say, "I can't hear you!" and sure enough, it happened.
It felt like magic, as if telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he explained. I asked him why and I remember him answering, "We're afraid to say what we really think, because we think people won't like us. Better to be liked than honest but avoided." I knew then that I wanted to be honest. I stuck to that for the next 25 years; there were consequences.
In my family, honesty was the only policy; It was never stated openly, no family rule or manifesto. My parents never said, "We don't lie under any circumstances." I nevertheless learned how to strictly define a lie. My parents' approach included much of what's considered polite or normal; they led by example, being themselves. I developed little sense of inappropriate questions or why anybody would not answer. Even at age 4 or 5, my father would respond to my curiosity with long-winded history and philosophy, explaining things such as the scientific method or the subconscious mind, or sharing details from his life, including emotions many people would cover up.
I learned the word hypocrite early, during a conversation about self-honesty. I told my mother I'd noticed my grandmother complaining about people doing what she did also, and asked Mom if her mother was a hypocrite. "Well," I remember my mother saying, "your grandmother certainly does a lot of hypocritical things." When my paternal grandmother told Mom not to speak ill of her own mother, my mother replied that lying to me would mean I'd either stop trusting my own observations or stop trusting her, both bad.
My parents' unwillingness to hide their feelings was a rejection of their experiences. Throughout my childhood, I heard stories of their own parents, bosses, teachers and friends pressuring them to conform. I was glad to have my parents instead of "most people."
One time I felt most grateful was at a measles vaccination. I remember other waiting kids asking their parents, "Will it hurt?" most of whom answered their children. no. Some parents said nothing, ignoring the question. I couldn't believe what I saw: parents lying to their children right in front of me! Dad explained, "Most parents consider lying good parenting." I asked Mom how it would feel; she said it would hurt a little, but the pain wouldn't last long. After the shot, I smiled when discovering she told me the truth. It horrified me to imagine kids who couldn't trust their parents.
My folks were so pleased with my moments of honesty and proud of their truthful parenting, they'd tell stories like this to anyone who'd listen and even re-tell them to me as family folklore. These became exciting bedtime stories in which my parents and I were heroes. My early childhood memories of exactly how these things happened are surely influenced by the re-tellings.
By the time I went to school, I'd heard a lot about how the outside world wasn't like my family, and I was content to be different. At age 4, I tried to show that a shopping mall Santa was fake. At 5, I was crying in class daily, insisting that openly crying felt great, everyone should do it. At 9, I asked clergy what scripture said about my fetishistic sexual fantasies. At 13, I called out the bragging boys at camp for lying about sexual experience. I'd laugh at bizarre and absurd lies I witnessed, mentally organizing lists of common manipulations and evasions. Eventually, most things I heard people say stood out in red.
Everyone else knew many good reasons to hold their tongues, but my parents and I couldn't agree. Why wouldn't anyone want to hear what other people thought? Why not say what you think? For us, it seemed as if other people didn't really want to know one another. Many years later, a co-worker would tell me she wished for just one day nobody would remember, a day to tell everyone what she really thought. In my family, that was every day. Telling the truth felt like singing, but when I started dealing with society, it made people want to strangle me.
I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful, many folks assuming I used honesty to justify insults. I'm aware many such people exist, insisting they're "just being honest" when being cruel. My honesty did occasionally offend, when I admitted that I'd forgotten someone's name or if I didn't fake interest when bored. Insulting people wasn't nearly as much of a problem as making them uncomfortable. Even close friends would squirm when I'd gush about how much I liked them or at a personal story which moved me to tears. I got the impression that, after hearing me, most would have prefer being insulted.
My insistence on honesty escalated at age 17 when I first attended "therapy camp" with my family, along with a few hundred participants who slept in tents in the woods and participated in extreme, public therapy sessions. I spent one week each summer watching hundreds of adults tell their most vulnerable stories, sobbing in front of the audience. With my newfound sense of the feelings boiling unexpressed beneath all the façades, I'd rant to anyone who'd listen about how ridiculous it was how everyone hid so much. I insisted that if we could all read each other's minds and see the truth of others' pain, we'd relate and all love one another. I couldn't understand why most people valued "privacy."
When I moved to New York at age 22, it became clear how an honest person would have a hard time getting a job. The nicer interviewers would be concerned and offer sincere advice, telling me that when asked about my biggest flaw, I wasn't supposed to actually list them. When I told them I hoped employers would appreciate honesty, most laughed. In some cases, I ended interviews early because the interviewer and I clearly weren't compatible, but I got lucky and was hired by an eccentric man charmed by my earnestness. After two months as his assistant, he pointed out where I needed to improve. I candidly told him that I didn't think I could do better, that I wasn't the best person he could get. I pretty much persuaded him to fire me.
Up to this point, my truthfulness prevented romance; it seemed unlikely any girl wanted a truly honest boyfriend. Then I fell in love with someone who appreciated openness and joined me in it. We talked constantly, sharing our most bizarre feelings, observations and opinions. We told each other stories from our pasts, feeling understood, but talking through everything also created an obsession over what otherwise would have been fleeting emotions. Expressing feelings regardless of how they might affect the other person, often felt self-centered and uncaring. I'd gotten what I'd always wanted and found I couldn't take it, after six years we broke up. In my heart-wrecked state, I decided my truth-telling had caused enough harm, it was no longer worth it. There must be things other people understood which I didn't, so I thought, reasons why dishonesty made other folks genuinely happy. At the next New Year's Day, age 29, I resolved to be "less honest."
There were no support groups for this. Therapists advised clients to speak the truth, for once not to keep quiet. I needed the opposite, so I created a system of making lists of topics I would not discuss again, including rules for myself, such as:
I started with small talk, asking the safe questions people around me did. I pretended to be satisfied with vague or avoidant answers. I'd stuff my hands in my pockets to hide the involuntary clenching and shaking when I held back the truth. I couldn't however ignore how much smoother every interaction went, how much happier everyone else seemed. I got an apartment after I falsely claimed that I had a high-paying job. I got piano-playing gigs by refraining from mentioning that I wasn't a very good piano player. I found I could have romances if I didn't mention qualities other people might not like.
I had the feeling, for the first time, that people who liked me didn't really know me, that I was the only person who felt anything wrong. I reminded myself how such people-pleasing was normal, it was what everyone wanted. I tried to find pleasure in being liked, having jobs, friendships and romances but all along, my honest mind told me I was a con artist. Whoever liked me really only liked the fake person I'd tricked them into thinking I was.
After years of feeling torn between my old and new ways, I overcame my discomfort from participating in the dishonest world. I started to see why people spared one another the truth. As I experimented with small talk, I noticed how others used honesty to establish intimacy. I'd always seen "hiding feelings" as cowardly but for other people, selective honesty gave it meaning. They'd choose who was special enough to hear secrets. My indiscriminate, automatic honesty used to mean I'd tell a personal story the same way to a stranger as to my closest friend. This cheapened what I shared; people who love me wanted to know what I didn't usually reveal. I hadn't ever saved that for them. Immediate honesty was impatient; if I wanted honesty in return, I had to earn it.
For 11 years now I've let myself lie. I'm still probably more open than most people and no doubt a few folks still believe too honest. Shutting up for a while has certainly softened me. These days, I save my candor for people who want it. When someone won't be honest with me, I understand. I still hope for unvarnished truth, but sometimes we have to follow the script in order to build sufficient trust, to then throw that script away.
I empathize with this author somewhat, because The Committee —their nickname still decades away— did much the same to me as a youngster and young adult, as anyone who read the introduction to The Alien Handbook might recall. I did and have sometimes revealed what I get, without citing the source, and it has most often been entertaining, sometimes even negative. The big egos in business and commerce I ran across were quite soft & squishy, outer appearance notwithstanding. (A life contract lesson for them and for me. I digress....) Unlike parental training, I simply assumed for a long time that everyone's mind works in a similar way and proceeded with that approach.
The USA has a version of what many nations uphold, the practice of free speech. The American interpretation evolved from Dutch practice & policy going back to the early 17th century, examples across Earth have interesting histories also. In the USA, thought freedom is broken down into a list of several areas:
We come to Earth to experience restrictions, which are becoming interesting at the moment. USA President Roosevelt (in office 1933-45) predicted the future more than 75 years ago, now currently unfolding:
"The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism; ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power.... Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing."
The HCPs, in other words.
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