What’s the difference between honesty and truth? Conflicts in some of my closest relationships have made me consider the question.
I first learned the value of honesty as a child. In a horrible episode I describe in The Black Girl Next Door, I lied to convince some kids to like me, and it turned into a complete disaster. When my father found out what I’d done, I saw the hurt and shame on his face for the first time. My stunt showed me the disfiguring power of deception.
For the remainder of my girlhood, and into my adult life, I tried to be honest. I mostly succeeded. For all my success, I thought little of how I defined honesty. Looking back, I regarded honesty as a personal standard, a state of being, and an internal process.
But my practice of honesty was flawed because I misunderstood the difference between being honest and telling the truth.
I have long marveled at people who walk through the world loudly proclaiming their truths. I have watched with wonder people whose worldviews sound absolute, whose definitions of themselves and others seem so crystal clear.
In my pursuit of internal honesty, I used to wither when I encountered other people who proclaimed their truths. The topic didn’t much matter; I sometimes engaged, but rarely challenged, those people.
I swallowed my disagreement when a relative piped up with an offensive political idea. Instead, I expressed my dissent in my head. Maybe later I rebutted their views with a close friend, but the vocal person was never around to hear me. For years, I didn’t serve wine at my own dinner table during holiday dinners so as not to offend my in-laws’ religious views. I told myself that I could skip the wine for the evening. “Honestly,” I told myself on such occasions, “it’s no problem.” I thought that I was paying respect through silence.
I was lying to myself.
Silence and accommodation became bad habits that allowed me to avoid my own feelings of intimidation and my overarching need to please. I sold honesty short far too many times. Every time I did, I taught people that their opinions mattered more to me than my own. People became accustomed to my silence.
So it was no surprise that they stepped into a seeming void and began to define the truth about me. I let them do it. Sure, I challenged them in my heart and in my head, but I rarely spoke up.
Then honesty grew weary of being cheated. The universe showed me my mistake. That’s when I felt the depth of my unhappiness. I realized that I couldn’t claim my own health and happiness without speaking the truth.
As I began to examine and redefine the terms on which I lived my life, my years of silence bit me on the backside. I had to break my habit of silence and speak up. It was as terrifying as it was liberating. Each time I did it, I felt relieved and just a bit freer.
My new voice surprised some folks who had grown reliant on my silence and whom I had misled into believing that they defined the truth for me. Not everyone liked it and sometimes got downright nasty.
At first, I tired to match the volume other people used to speak their truths. But it wasn’t me. I have a loud voice, but I’m not a yeller. Eventually, I stopped trying to compete with them on volume. I stopped talking for awhile. That’s when I really settled into my voice as a writer.
My years of silent honesty weren’t wasted though. They informed my truth telling in great ways. I have tried to remain focused on my own life and have resisted the temptation to tell other people about themselves.
I feel better today because I walk through the world having embraced the truth of who I am. I no longer mistake volume for clarity. I now know the strength and freedom that emerge from being both honest and truthful.