For some unfathomable reason I’ve been digging around in old folders and files tonight, and I dug up this pseudo-essay that I wrote back in 2004. Surprisingly, upon reading it for the first time in 5 years I didn’t think it was horrible. In fact I felt like putting it on the old bloggy wog. Why? Dunno – maybe because it’s been an odd week. I’ve been hearing about colleagues and friends with major health challenges, which has me feeling shaken up, concerned, and perhaps a bit ruminative. Anyway, it’s about honesty. Danger, Will Robinson: this is an extremely long post.
Practicing personal honesty can be, if you’ll pardon my French, a big pain in the ass. It can be hard to dish it out, and hard to take it. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth can be a real double-edged sword – partly, of course, because it’s often not all that clear what the truth actually is, but partly because people are so damned contrary and mixed-up. People have such complicated reactions to things! You think you’re telling something they need to hear, and they end up biting your head clean off of your shoulders! One of the worst things is when you tell someone the truth and they respond by telling you you’re spouting a bunch of crap. Even worse is when someone tells you that and you realize oh yeah, I am spouting a bunch of crap! We are complex many-layered beings, after all, and we live in a world that is sorely lacking in absolutes. Yet still it’s in our interest to give our best effort at figuring out what is nearest to the full truth, and when and how to say it, both to others and to ourselves.
There have been two times in my life when I’ve talked to friends and more or less told them, “I don’t want to be friends with you anymore, and here’s why.” Not being a sadist, I did not enjoy these conversations, but they were necessary. In both cases I was talking to someone who I had been friends with for a while, someone who I had gotten to know through other friends and whose behavior had always bothered me in some significant way. In those situations my challenges were threefold. The first challenge was that I did not want to hurt the feelings of the friend in question. Second challenge was that I appreciated the friendship because of certain qualities the person had that were not so evident at first glance, but could be glimpsed upon closer examination. The third challenge was that the first two challenges were big fat lies, lies, lies, lies.
Hurting the other person’s feelings were less important than avoiding the potential confrontation that would erupt, and the insecurities and doubts about myself such a confrontation could bring to the surface. And it was not so much appreciation of the friendship as it was fear of losing the friendship due to a staggering amount of fear and anxiety about being able to form new friendships to fill the gap. I had some help in getting around the fear and anxiety in those two situations – both times I was helped immensely by someone else telling me “why do you hang out with that idiot?” Both times I initiated the final conversation despite my fantasies of how the person would tell me to perform an anatomically impossible act on myself. Both times the person actually did tell me to perform an anatomically impossible act on myself. And both times I actually ended up feeling doubtful, and shaken, and upset, and ultimately, in the end, better.
I felt better. Holy cow, being honest can make us feel better, more at peace, more open, healthier. This is not to say that I’ve since made it a practice to surgically remove people from my life the first time they pissed me off in one way or another, but I have learned that it’s okay to surround yourself with people you feel good about, and who feel good about you.
I heard a quote once from the Reverend Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. I’m paraphrasing somewhat, but he said that you want to have angels around you, people who will hold you up, not people who will run you down. If you’ve had the bad judgment to hang around with people who ultimately have a destructive effect on you (as I have in the past), you need to be able to separate yourself from those people, which might require some brutal honesty directed toward them, and even some brutal honesty directed at yourself. You might need to ask yourself: Why am I spending so much time with people who aren’t good for me to be around? What fear or insecurity is driving this behavior? Why do I feel a need to prioritize their needs over mine?
The other end of the spectrum, of course, involves those people who ARE good to be around, the ones who are positive, affirming, and capable of building and maintaining friendships and relationships built around trust and affection. I think that I am finally in a place where my life is pretty full up with people like that, and of course that presents a whole different set of pitfalls, because even with people who provide you with a sense of togetherness and healing, you still have to practice honesty.
Speaking for myself, it’s a sad but inescapable reality that the quality of the people in my life does not always inspire me to put my own best foot forward. I am still often cowardly about confrontation. I am still struck by insecurity when expressing anger or disappointment. I am still afflicted with the occasional bout of people-pleasing disease, usually to my own detriment. But what’s possibly most interesting to me is the difficulty I still often have with my friends and family is verbally expressing trust, or affection, or love. This is a kind of honesty that is more than just refraining from telling an outright lie. This is a kind of emotional honesty that demands action, direct, engaged action, and I just might make the argument that it’s the most important kind of honesty there is.
For example: It took me a long time to be able to say “I love you” to my mother. I worked actively on doing so, doing my best to conquer my hesitation and tolerate the discomfort of being so nakedly emotional. I’ve never had a problem saying “I love you” in romantic relationships, so I was clearly capable of it, but like everyone, I have an entire lifetime of inter-family dynamics packed inside my skull, and it just kept getting in the way. But I worked it through, going so far as to practice saying it to an empty room, and eventually it became a consistent, important part of my interactions with my mother. And once I had beaten my own self-conciousness into submission, I noticed something – my mother wouldn’t say it back to me. This was frustrating, although I have to admit it was perversely entertaining as well. I don’t want to give the impression that she never said it, because she would every so often, but more often she would say something like “okay,” or even worse, “thank you.”
Just yesterday I talked to her on the phone, and when I said “I love you” she responded with something that sounded vaguely like “unnnh.” When my mother first came to the States she was shocked by how people here are not honest with each other. “People in this country don’t say what they mean!” she would exclaim. Now, over the course of my life I’ve spent a significant amount of time sitting in rooms full of immigrant Koreans loudly telling each other exactly what they mean, and it can be shockingly blunt, so I understood what she was saying to me, to a degree anyway. But I’ve also noticed that among my family’s older generations, expressions of love were usually not verbally direct.
I’ve never doubted my mother’s love for me (regardless of some of the nastier things I might have said in my adolescence), and she’s always expressed it in what I’ve come to think of as the usual indirect intergenerational ways – by making a fuss with clean sheets and towels when I visit, for example, or telling me to just leave the dishes after dinner, or by stocking up on various snack foods that she knows I like, even if I’m really trying not to eat that kind of stuff anymore. But with actual verbalization of the deeper emotions? Expressing feelings in an openly vulnerable way? Problematic.
My mother has a lot of trouble doing that. And it was like a blinding light going off in my mind! My mom has always been like this! In fact, my entire family has always been like this! This was a huge contributing factor in my personal development! This, at least partly, explains my own history of emotional constipation! It felt like I had made a scientific discovery. I briefly wondered if Charles Darwin felt this way while he was writing Origin of Species, and I congratulated myself on being enough of a highly evolved 21st century individual to have this kind of metacognitive realization.
The positive emotions are difficult to express, however, for many, many people, not just the ones who grew up in rigidly defined, sharply repressed Far Eastern cultures, and I’m not so deluded as to think I’m the only one who struggles with this issue. Expressing thoughts and feelings that are negative or painful can be very hard. It can be hard to tell a friend that you think they’re making a mistake. It can be hard to tell someone close to you that you’re angry with them, or disagree with them, or don’t like something about them. But expressing thoughts and feelings that are positive and healing and loving can be equally difficult! Why is that? Why should it be hard to express love or affection or attachment?
Well, it’s risky, of course, it’s old man Risk rearing his ugly head again. There’s the attendant risk of rejection, which is terrible and fearful. There’s the risk of embarrassment, which can stem from all kinds of sources – societal pressures, narrowly defined gender roles, cultural norms. Maybe there’s a fear that the feelings being expressed will be accepted, and if you’re not used to expressing those feelings you’re probably not used to having them just floating there in the air between you and the other person. You’ve said it, and it’s just hanging in the air like a cloud of flies, and you’re thinking, what the hell are we supposed to do now? Should we hug? Do we HAVE to hug? Isn’t this delving into my intimacy issues more than I really want to?
And yet it’s so important to be emotionally honest in this way, because to shy from it is to block ourselves off from a vein of rich and incredible warmth, a kind of harmony that can hum through us like the singing of angels, or the vibrations of the earth itself. As in most things, we must take risks in order to harvest rewards.
Yours in soulful contemplation,