Monday, November 8, 2010
Telling the truth
I have been waiting for months for the release of the first of three volumes of Mark Twain's autobiography, which he forbade to be published until 100 years after his death. It is an intimidating volume: small print and over 600 pages. However, my curiosity about what he had to say that he felt needed to wait 100 years transcends the intimidation. I've just begun reading it, and apparently Twain struggled in his efforts to write it. One of the struggles was his concern for telling the truth as he understood it without offending others personally.
"As he explained to an interviewer in 1899: "A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way. In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons." Posthumous publication was also supposed to make it easier for Clemens to confess even shameful parts of his own story, but that goal proved to be illusory. In that same 1899 interview he admitted that a "man cannot tell the whole truth about himself, even if convinced that what he wrote would never be seen by others." (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Harriet Elinor Smith, Editor, University of California Press, Berkeley, copyright 2010, 2001 by the Mark Twain Foundation, p. 2).
I agree with Twain. We cannot tell the truth of ourselves for two reasons. The first is that whatever "truth" we think we know about either ourselves, others, or a situation is, of necessity, only a partial truth or awareness. The second reason, which derives from the first, is that we are always in the process of furthering our understanding. And of course, there is also the dilemma that most of us can barely be fully honest with ourselves, never mind with others. The gift that is within this inability to be truthful, however, is that once we recognize our limitations, we can hopefully be more patient, more open, and more compassionate.
One can only wish that in this day and time speakers of "truth" would be so concerned about hurting other people's feelings as was Twain. I do believe in the importance of speaking truth to power and being as honest as we can. However, truth speaking need not be malicious. I remember the scene in the movie "Ghandi," when the Mahatma and the British Viceroy met for the first time. As I recall, in the scene Ghandi extends his hand to the Viceroy and says to him that he knows that his activities must have caused the Viceroy pain or difficulty (I don't recall the exact words.) and he continues by saying "I hope it will not come between us as men."
In today's world we stand pointing the finger at the other person as the sole source of the maliciousness and lack of civility in our exchanges. Sadly, most of the public verbal exchanges do not come close to qualifying as either dialogue or conversation. Would that we could find our way to both. Maliciousness in one's behavior or being is an astronomical impediment to spiritual progress.