Saturday, March 01, 2008

Do Not Lie. Do Not Do What You Hate.

In the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus, “Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?”

He answers, “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate.”

Wow! That's all it takes?

“Do not do what you hate” has been interpreted as another wording for “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.” But I imagine it means don't do anything you hate. Don’t do work you hate or foster relationships you hate, much less do to others what you’d hate to have done to you.

I’m pretty o.k. at that - in all senses.

(Of course, born into middle-middle class America, I was raised rich – compared to most of the world. So ‘though I presently make less than peanuts as a freelance writer, I feel I can afford job freedom. Yet, Jesus mostly spoke to those who could NOT afford to be picky about work and still expected they could follow his radical prescriptions.)

Only the thing is, I am absolutely crappy at telling the truth.

One of the old desert hermits, Abba Poemen, instructed spiritual seekers to “teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.” And he meant speak your true feelings all the time, not just when they were pretty.

Mega strike one for me.

Still, I’d thought I was pretty good at old-fashioned honesty in the marketplace.

I just found out I’m not too hot there, either.

I’m selling a used car. It's in great shape for its age (and Wisconsin), even starting immediately in our recent sub-zero weather - after sitting for four days. ...It only has this one, itsy, bitsy problem. The problem first showed up over a year ago. I considered it one of those annoying things that old cars can do. Anyway, it was intermittent. And ‘though the problem can be exceedingly annoying, the car always ran. So when it came time to sell, I pushed the problem from my mind.

The car sold quickly for a pretty nice price.

And I felt just awful.

Because I had not told the buyers about the problem before the sale.

“O.k.,” I argued to myself, “I bet that problem won’t even show up… Certainly not for awhile.” (Like it was ok as long as the buyer thought it was just bad luck when something went wrong a week or a month after they took it home.) “Even if it does show up, it’s probably no big deal. Besides, the price was less than the blue book value for that car with no problems. So it was fair.”

But all the dissembling in the world didn’t change anything. I’d known there was a problem with the car and I'd lied by not mentioning it. This might be good buyer-beware capitalism, but I knew perfectly well it was spiritual disaster – made obvious by the way I got busy lying to myself just so I could get away with lying to others.

Well, luckily for me, and the buyers, the problem showed up that very night. They returned the car. I returned their money, and made an appointment to have my mechanic deal.

Suddenly I felt a whole lot better, even with the prospect of futzing with this old car after I’d thought it was gone.

Then today, someone else called – although I’d pulled the ad. This time I told the whole truth. She drove the car and wants it - once we have an idea what is wrong and what it will take to fix. And I felt great dealing with her.

One of my oldest friends once told me, “I’d rather be taken advantage of than be the kind of person who takes advantage of people.” I’ve always wanted to live up to his standards. After this interesting experience, maybe I’m a small bit closer to doing so.

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  1. Elena, Thanks for sharing this story. It's a courageous act and one that other people can learn from. We don't usually talk enough about these everyday honesty dilemmas.

    In my book, Staying Healthy in Sick Organizations: The Clover Practice (tm) the first leaf of the clover is "Tell the truth, always" even when it's not convenient and even if we don't look too good. I know from my own life that it's the only way to stay out of hiding and to really feel free. Thanks again for an inspiring story!

  2. Thanks, Kathleen, for the compliments... It's a lot easier to write about than to actually do (grin), 'though I keep at it.

    Isn't it interesting, yet unsurprising, that the first principle you've found for healthy organizations is the, or one of the, first principles for spiritual health.


  3. Anonymous8:59 AM

    do not lie. do not do what you hate.
    the buddha might add: do not speak unless it will improve on silence.

  4. Ha! Or, "Say only what is true, necessary, and KIND." I emphasize the last because we so often rush to speech convinced on truth and necessity, yet what we say is designed to perpetuate suffering.

    Like all monastic traditions, Benedict also "preferred silence" to the extent that monks were even to refrain from saying good things.

    There is a corollary to this, though. Women (and other suppressed groups) often totally buy into the need to silence themselves - even when they surround themselves with a blanket of talk. This silencing damages all people. If you are so silenced, inside and out, that you have no power to *know* your truth, much less speak it, the call to silence must be tempered with calls to discover and practice right speech.