From the time we are coherent, happiness and peace of mind are typically one’s greatest aspirations. We grow and learn, we set goals, decide what kind of life we want to lead. And it’s all to satisfy this initial desire we all have to be happy.
There are obvious steps that we all take in this journey towards happiness, such as being kind to others, which surprisingly enough covers the majority of what we need for an emotionally stable lifestyle. But it is clear that the conditions within the umbrella of ‘be kind to others’ is not always enough for us to be happy in life. We begin our search from here, trying to progress in our careers, trying to save money to own a home, retire, and so on. There seems to be this to-do list that can only be explained as ‘just what we do’. If we are doing something that makes us happy, we only seem to ask ourselves what we will do next, rather than enjoying what’s right in front of us. I think that the reason we are left doing this is because these things we do to be happy aren’t the real answers to happiness. Don’t get me wrong, things like a job that pays well, a nice home, and an HD TV can be great accents to a happy life, but they are certainly not the answer; not the holy grail, if you will, to a happy life.
I am soon to be finishing college this year with my degree in mathematics, and my brother finished his degree in physics not long ago. He is now in the beginning stages of his career. Recently we were discussing some of the conversations he has had with other friends, co-workers, and so forth. In that conversation, he told me about some of the questions he was hearing from them, such as; “What are your plans to get promoted?” and “When are you going to buy a house?” Now he certainly would go for promotions when offered if he was intrigued by the offer, and he is also currently looking to buy a house. But it was the way that these questions, and other questions of the like, were being asked which intrigued us both. This implication that one couldn’t be happy with where they are in life right now. The idea that one needs to move on to the next thing on the list. This constant look ahead, anticipating the future that will bring happiness. Probably my favorite philosopher, Sam Harris, had this to say of this way of thinking;
“We manage to never really connect with the present moment and find fulfillment there because we are continually hoping to become happy in the future. And the future never arrives. Even when we think we are in the present moment, we are, in very subtle ways, always looking over its shoulder, anticipating what’s coming next.”
As I stated in my last post, I believe that one can find more joy, more love, and more peace, when one can truly live in the present moment. That’s much easier said than done. This is a very difficult thing to do and I promise you that ten minutes of trying to do this will open your eyes to the chaos that is our mind from moment to moment. And to be able to, if for even just a moment, still our ocean of thoughts, is just a brief insight into the amount of peace there is to attain.
There are ideas, or ways of thinking, that really make this experience worth while. There are ideals which I find to be the fuel that drives this most beneficial ethos of living in the present moment. And they are the topic of this three part series. The first ideal I am going to talk about is honesty. Let me begin.
I remember the day that honesty became so important to me. My brother had told me about Sam Harris’ book, Lying. By this time I had already read his two books The Moral Landscape, and Free Will and through these readings became quite a big fan. The book is quite short (at the time it was just an e-book), and I read it on a return flight home. Page after page was compact with points that argued that at no time was lying the right thing to do. His points were so clear, so concise, that by the time I finished the book, I was convinced. I didn’t even need to put the idea into practice to recognize that my life had just changed for the better.
Now the first step to understanding how a concept such as never lying could truly make one’s life better is to first really understand what it means to lie. To lie is to intend to deceive another. Intent plays a large role when we look at lying. Sometimes we lie by accident. For example, and this is an oversimplified example, suppose someone asks your height. You say that you are 5’10” but later find that you are in fact 5’9”. While someone may want to argue that this is a lie, it really isn’t. You were simply wrong. There was no intent to deceive anyone. You simply thought that you were 5’10” but it turns out you were wrong. This is not lying.
To move a little closer to the edge, suppose while walking to your car in a parking lot, you see a friend near by but you are in a hurry and do not have time to talk. Suppose that this friend is quite the talker, so you ignore them (Suppose they are too close to simply wave, but far enough so that you don’t bump their shoulder). This could be worded as you “pretend” not to see them. This is not a lie. You might be asking why right about now. The reason this is not a lie is because in this scenario, your intent is not to deceive your friend. Your intention is merely to show that you are too busy to acknowledge your friend at this moment which you display by ignoring them. Therefore everything about this moment is honest. Now this does not mean that if your friend confronts you about the situation later that you lie. You could simply explain; “Yeah, I did see you, but I was in a rush and had to go.” Some of the questions that I sense may be arising lead me to my next point on the topic which is subtlety.
Many people tend to believe that the only way to be honest is to be completely blunt. But being honest does not mean that we need to say everything that comes to mind. This is because not everything that comes to mind will be congruent with your actual intentions and later actions. You may lead people to believe something about yourself that is in fact not true. So honesty and dishonesty is a little more complex than the face value price tag we place on it. The clearest and most simple way to view honesty is to speak or act without the intent to deceive another.
Now that I have defined what it means to be honest, I will try to convince you why it is so important to be honest. The idea that being honest is good is not hard to convince people of primarily because everyone that is sane would already agree. But most people do believe that there is a grey area where sometimes lying is in fact the better thing to do. From the mundane, to the very serious, scenarios can always be created which can leave us unsure as to whether honesty is the best decision. As a mundane example, I turn to an excerpt from Sam Harris’ book.
A friend of mine, Sita, was once visiting the home of another friend and wanted to take her a small gift. Unfortunately, she was traveling with her young son and hadn’t found time to go shopping. As they were getting ready to leave their hotel, however, Sita noticed that the bath products supplied in their room were unusually nice. So she put some soaps, shampoos, and body lotions into a bag, tied it with a ribbon she got at the front desk, and set off.
When Sita presented this gift, her friend was delighted.
“Where did you get them?” she asked.
Surprised by the question, and by a lurching sense of impropriety, Sita sought to regain her footing with a lie: “Oh we just bought them in the hotel gift shop.”
The next words came from her innocent son: “No, Mommy, you got them in the bathroom!”
Imagine the faces of these two women, briefly frozen in embarrassment and then yielding to smiles of apology and forgiveness. This may seem the most trivial of lies–and it was–but it surely did nothing to increase the level of trust between these two friends.
Considering a much more serious example, I will recall one of the most difficult questions I have ever heard on the topic of lying. Suppose a wife lies on her deathbed next to her husband of 50 years and asks him the question; “Did you ever cheat on me during our marriage?” The truth of the matter is that early on in the marriage he did in fact cheat on her. But for the last 45 years their love blossomed into beautiful memories. The fact that he cheated is virtually irrelevant to their wonderful life. Now this may appear to be hopeless, and it pretty much is when it is not properly analyzed by means of true honesty from all involved. To answer this question though I would like to quickly rant here. All too often these days while watching a movie, reading fiction, or listening to a problem a friend or a family member is having, I continue to recognize how honesty would have solved the problem and lead to far less sorrow (in some cases sorrow is too strong a word). People far too often are also not honest with themselves before being honest with one another. These are the ideas I will use to answer this question.
For starters, this question puts me in somewhat of a catch 22. I am trying to show that honesty is always the better solution. However I am in this case asked to defend a lie that has lasted 45 years. But I am already against lying in the first place, and if you see that him now telling the truth would be a bad thing, it is the fault of the 45 year long lie, not the truth that should not have waited until his wife was on his deathbed. Thus, if I wished to be brief I could answer saying that the very conundrum proves my point! Nonetheless, should he answer this question truthfully right now? This gets to my second point. People far too often are not honest with themselves before being honest with one another. Does the wife really want to know the truth of this question? Is she really asking if he ever cheated on her, or is she really looking for a confirmation of his true love? In such a serious scenario, I would argue that whoever presented this argument would have a difficult time truly finding someone that would ask a question so potentially detrimental to their happiness in what is perhaps their final moments. But if a person truly wants to know the truth of the exact question they asked, then the truth may actually give them some peace. The only time that I suspect it wouldn’t provide peace would be if they didn’t really want to know the answer. So should a man answer a question not asked in honesty? Could he in fact answer the real question by assuring his wife that he has loved her and only her their whole lives? I would say yes. I think we can see how even such a difficult question can hold the seeds of the benefits of honesty.
The Subjective Experience
Although there is a lot to discuss when arguing the importance of honesty. The most important reason that I encourage honesty to others is for the subjective experience of honesty. We can propose scenario after scenario that will force us to analyze whether or not telling the truth is the best thing to do, but from the point of view of subjective experience, honesty can be one of the best tools for growth.
When we try to be honest with others, we are forced to first be honest with ourselves. When we do this, we begin to learn more and more about ourselves. We can become aware of various hindrances such as fears and insecurities. We may become more aware of things that we don’t know or don’t fully understand. And perhaps the best thing honesty does for us here, is it forces us to confront these fears, confront these insecurities, confront what we don’t know or don’t understand. And when we do this, when we are truly honest with ourselves. Becoming aware and confronting these realizations is almost, if not completely, accepting these hindrances. Once we do that, we can begin to grow, learn, and overcome what previously held us back which in turn leads to greater happiness and peace of mind.
The benefits of honesty are truly limitless. One of the greatest benefits is with our various relationships. Relationships strengthen because when they are built on a foundation of honesty, the trust can be stronger than anything imagined. And when you receive praise, or give praise to another, when you give advice or receive advice, you know that it is coming from a heart of compassion and truth. There is no need to second guess it. So I encourage all who read this to work towards always being honest with others, and perhaps most importantly, be honest yourself. With honesty as a foundation, we can take the next steps towards true peace of mind and happiness.