There is no god higher than truth. – Gandhi
It is strange how a few words strung together have the power to profoundly affect your outlook. Some years ago I saw Ridley Scott’s film “Kingdom of Heaven” (if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it). In one scene, a French knight (Liam Neeson) initiates his son (Orlando Bloom) into his order; as part of the initiation ritual, the father admonishes his son: “always tell the truth, even if it leads to your death.” These words never quite left my thoughts since.
At first, I dismissed them – nice, but too extreme. Impossible to live up to. Perhaps just plain dumb… But the idea kept coming back and each time it carved a deeper meaning.
Truthfulness isn’t about splitting hairs over every word we say. Humor, for one thing, often entails making outrageous and untrue or exaggerated statements. Other times, our discussions deal in personal interpretations of truth which may or may not be correct. But it is at times when we’re tempted to deliberately deceive or mislead for whatever reason that being truthful stands to make the difference.
As a harmless example, I give importance to punctuality as a matter of respect for other people and their time. Still, I find it incredibly hard to actually be punctual. Being always late 5, 10, or 15 minutes for any appointment used to be the way I was. To be sure, I always had an excuse – usually an invented one: traffic jam, meeting that ran overtime, call from the boss just as I was leaving office, or whatever. Lying seemed like an occasional tool of convenience; a way to reconcile the difference between my self-image (I’m respectful of others) with my actual conduct (I’m habitually tardy). Of course I would be on time, if only it wasn’t for this thing that happened… Except, the things that happened were often inventions, and in effect, I was propping my self-image of a respectful person on falsehoods. Ouch!
On the other hand, refusing to lie forced me to either be punctual, or admit that I’m a disrespectful schmuck, late for no good reason. This all made me realize that being lax with truth allowed me to be lax in many other ways and the act of making the commitment to always tell the truth would keep me from doing things I’d have to lie about.
In this way, greater respect for truth has the power to make the world a better place. Committed to being truthful, husbands wouldn’t cheat on their wives and create so many broken families. Media editors wouldn’t mislead the public and distort the democratic process. Financiers wouldn’t build up Ponzi schemes and defraud investors and pensioners of their savings. Statesmen wouldn’t invade nations on false pretenses and destroy the lives of millions of people. In short, if we all committed to being truthful, the world would be a better place.
How naïve is that? I refuse to think it naïve. Truth isn’t always comfortable. There are times when telling the truth entails risk and takes courage. Likely, the more courage it takes to tell the truth, the more important it is to be truthful. This is where “even if it leads to your death,” resonates.
It’s down to who we choose to be in life. We all admire the virtue of characters like William Wallace, Roger Casement, Mohandas Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Nobody in their hopeful youth aspired to be a groveling coward. Nobody premeditates selling out for money (almost nobody). We deeply care about things like truth and courage and justice, and only perhaps fail to appreciate that each and every one of us has the power to make a difference – not by judging others and reprimanding their conduct, but by being more like the people we admire.
Both virtue and vice take root in small things – the numerous and frequent opportunities in daily life to uphold or to violate the person we aspire to be. The important bit – the catalyst perhaps – is the act of making a conscious commitment. Living up to it is each person’s own personal jihad. Prevailing in this jihad is its own reward; there is nothing quite like earning your own approval and self-respect. It may stay with you forever.
Even if we can’t all be saints and muster the courage to tell the whole truth on every occasion, making the commitment and keeping it alive will help us to rise up to important occasions. At the very least, it should keep us off the slippery slope of habitual and casual lying. This would certainly be an improvement, and our world really can use all the improvement we can spare.