Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Compassionate Lie

            Have you ever told someone they look nice, even though you know they don’t, just to spare their feelings? Did you ever console someone who is going through a dark time in their life by assuring them that ‘everything will be alright’ even though you know that disaster is imminent? Have you apologized for something that isn’t your fault just to keep peace? If any of these scenarios applies to you, you are intimately familiar with the compassionate lie.

            There are many who believe that a lie is a lie is a lie and it is never justified, that truth and total honesty are paramount and should be forthcoming in any and all situations. They believe that blunt truth, no matter how hard it stings is the only path to follow. But at what cost?

            We are, in the final analysis, social beings with feelings and aspirations that need, at least occasionally, to be stroked and encouraged. That’s not to say that all praise arises out of false pretenses. Quite the contrary. Genuine praise for effort and accomplishments can encourage us to even greater heights, challenging us to achieve even more. But when that praise becomes obviously patronizing or contrite it can have the opposite effect. So, we should choose when and to what extent to apply the compassionate lie.

            We have been lied to, lied for and lied about almost from day one. Parents lie to their children, children lie to each other, about each other, etc. And why?

            A parent may believe the child isn’t quite old enough or mature enough to know or handle the truth about certain things, but they are gullible enough to be fooled into believing some made up contrivance as long as it sounds reasonable. After all, children believe in nursery rhymes and fairy tales, so what’s the harm, right? They’ll under when they get older that it is for their own good.

            But what if they don’t understand when they get older? What if they are resentful? Will they be forgiving or will they continue the pattern with their own children? And it this really a bad thing?

            Bending or stretching reality to those who are ill-prepared to receive it is simply another form of the compassionate lie. Whether that lack of preparation is due to immaturity, misinformation or naivety is unimportant as long as the intent is to spare the recipient from harm. The intent is not to deceive, but to protect, to delay the truth until such a time that it might be better understood.

            As adults the compassionate lie becomes a bit more complex. Take, for instance, that famous courtroom scene from the book/play/movie where the prosecutor keeps badgering the witness to breakdown and tell the truth only to be told in no uncertain terms, “You can’t handle the truth!” Was the witness hiding the truth to cover up a scandal and avoid prosecution or to protect an unwitting public from a truth that could cause chaos and wide-spread panic? Was his a despicable falsehood or was it a compassionate lie? You be the judge.

            Sometimes, in our very darkest hours we cling to any little bit of hope we can imagine. Perhaps we even lie to ourselves, deny the reality of our situation, and accept unrealistic solutions longing for a better outcome. Surprisingly, more often than not, things have a way of working themselves out; perhaps not always the way we want, but not as disastrous as we expect. Did we deceive ourselves into accepting false hope or was it that hope, as elusive as it might seem, that kept us going, saw us through. That compassionate lie told only to ourselves became our savior.

            So, is the compassionate lie really so bad? Is it really a lie at all, or is it merely a device meant not to deceive, but merely to delay disclosure, spare hurt or instill hope? Perhaps it is simply a matter of time and place and circumstance. You be the judge… and use it wisely.


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