Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.
Photo by Chris Waits.
This week's Mid-Week Meditation comes from Seneca's letters addressed to Lucilius, the then-procurator of Sicily. Scholars aren't sure if he and Lucilius actually corresponded or not, but nevertheless, Seneca penned 124 letters to him. These are all collected in the work Letters From a Stoic, or the Moral Letters to Lucilius.
This selection, from Marcus Aurelius, takes aim at those who believe honesty is something to be used at advantage, or some gift to be given to those who are worthy:
The rotten pretense of the man who says, 'I prefer to be honest with you'! What are you on about, man? No need for this preface - the reality will show. It should be written on your forehead, immediately clear in the tone of your voice and the light of your eyes, just as the loved one can immediately read all in the glance of his lovers. In short, the good and honest man should have the same effect as the unwashed - anyone close by as he passes detects the aura, willy-nilly, at once. Calculated honesty is a stiletto. There is nothing more degrading than the friendship of wolves: avoid that above all. The good, honest, kindly man has it in his eyes, and you cannot mistake him. - Meditations, 11.15
What It Means
Beginning a statement with a phrase such as, "I'll be honest with you..." or, "To be frank..." or, "To tell you the truth..." is not necessary when you're an honest person. If you are honest and good, people will know through your personality and character. Just by being around, everyone should be able to sense that you're a well-meaning individual. If you're dishonest, they will recognise that too. Humans are much better lie detectors than they realise.
Aurelius then refers to calculated honesty, or the selective use of honesty when it best suits you, as a "stiletto" (skalme in Greek) — but he's not talking about shoes here. He means an assassin's dagger with a long, slender blade intended for stabbing through leather and the slots between heavy armour to end a life in a single motion. Essentially, Aurelius is calling calculated honesty a tool used by villains who slink through the shadows and do not fight fair. In his eyes, choosing when to be honest and when to be dishonest is cowardly and false.
Every day we make the same choice hundreds of times. whether to lie or tell the truth. It often happens without thinking, and we ignore the profound impact of these seemingly inconsequential decisions. Even the smallest lies can cost you money and impact your relationships. Conversely, honesty offers many surprising psychological benefits. Here's how truth and lies affect your brain and your life every day.
What to Take From It
Early on in our lives we learn that lying is bad. Yet, somewhere along the way, we discover that the world is complicated, and that being completely and totally honest is far more difficult than we'd hoped. So we lie. Now, sometimes a lie is unavoidable and for the best. There's no real harm in saying "everything is going to be OK" to comfort another, after all. You can't see the future, so you can't say that honestly — but it's fine.
The real issue isn't fibbing occasionally, no. It's when you choose to cling to dishonesty, to live your lies as long as it benefits you. It's exuding an utter lack of sincerity and using brief flashes of honesty like some sort of tool to manipulate people as you see fit. One lie begets another and eventually you've lied so many times you start to believe them yourself. You become them.
It's not always easy to be honest with people. We're all guilty of telling a white lie or pretending to be ok with something that secretly drives us nuts. If you have a hard time being brutally honest with someone, think of it as a chance to improve your relationship with that person.
So, what can you do? Is honesty really the best policy? Perhaps, but nobody is perfect. Instead, let go of your fears. The fear that you'll be judged, the fear that you're not good enough, the fear that someone will catch the faintest whiff of your weaknesses, and be honest. Be your authentic, sincere self, and choose to give it to people straight as often as you can. Be honest and you can live honest. If you find yourself constantly opening up your conversations with phrases such as, "I'll be honest with you..." or, "To be frank..." or, "To tell you the truth," you have to wonder why. Are you preparing them for your sincerity? Or are you preparing yourself for something you rarely do?