For all our contemporary culture’s ability to communicate in real time, in images, in text, and even in video, we lack the right understanding of honesty and authenticity that seem to have come to past generations more easily. Today, to be “brutally honest” is championed; to speak one’s mind without holding anything back is paired with positive concepts like empowerment and assertiveness.
On the contrary, nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson suggests that we “Tell all the truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies.” The reason for indirection when telling the truth, Dickinson says, is our listener’s inability to bear it: “Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.”
Being “completely honest” and being indirect about the truth are both problematic, in that both inhibit a person’s ability to be authentic. The current cultural orientation toward complete honesty is rather incomplete, as it puts personal opinions up on a pedestal and labels them as “telling the truth” or “telling it like it is.” This view ends up asserting that our perception is the only way to perceive the situation. It also shows a lack of consideration for the needs of others—to receive feedback in a personalized, productive way, for example. Indirection for the sake of another’s feelings can lead to confusion in our listener, a temptation to hide our needs, and as a result, may make us feel misunderstood at best, a doormat at worst.
Interestingly, another nineteenth-century writer, Elizabeth Gaskell, seems to find a middle ground for authentic sharing of one’s perspective in her novel Wives and Daughters. The book’s heroine, Molly Gibson, is simple in the most freeing sense of the word: her responses to others are integrated, meaning that she is able to say what she thinks and to do it in a way that shows care for those around her.
For example, she’s candid about her belief that she’ll dislike her new stepmother, and even in the midst of her distress, is also able to listen to a family friend’s advice: “It is right to hope for the best about everybody, and not to expect the worst . . . One has always to try to think more of others than of oneself, and it is best not to prejudge people on the bad side.” Though this advice is given rather bluntly, Molly is able to perceive the kindness with which it was said, and discovers good in it: “she had been refreshed by a new current of thought, and she was very thankful.”
In her turn, Molly’s authentic responses to others makes her braver than those concerned with merely pleasing others. On her way to her father’s remarriage, she’s seated alongside Lady Harriett, a woman of the aristocratic class who proceeds to show favor to Molly, while also making fun of the affectations and exaggerated manners of beloved neighbors. To Lady Harriett’s promise that she’ll make a visit to Molly, Molly courageously says,
“No, don’t, please . . . You must not come—indeed you must not.”
“Because I would rather not—because I think that I ought not to have any one coming to see me who laughs at the friends I am staying with, and calls them names.” Molly's heart beat very fast, but she meant every word that she said.
Because Molly does not sacrifice her honest reaction to Lady Harriett’s statement, and equally because she speaks to Lady Harriett in a polite, unaffected way—apologizing for any perceived impertinence—she helps Lady Harriett see a lesson she’s learned earlier in the book—the error of prejudging people. And what’s more, Lady Harriett’s respect for Molly grows.
Molly’s integrity is contrasted with her new stepmother and stepsister, both of whom either don’t say what they mean, or allow their convictions and the meaning of their words to change with their passing moods. Cynthia, Molly’s stepsister, dwells in secrecy, especially from her mother who she struggles to love. Perhaps because of Molly’s openness and unhidden desire to love Cynthia, Cynthia is drawn to Molly, and shares her secret of having promised to marry a man she now hates and actively avoids.
Hyacinth, Molly’s stepmother, is a web of contradiction, contending that Molly is hard to please while actively making decisions that Molly does not like—such as not allowing Molly to visit a sick friend and “renovating” Molly’s bedroom while she’s away in such a way that all of Molly’s dead mother’s things are given away. But in spite of the family tension Cynthia and Hyacinth create, Molly keeps Cynthia’s secrets and does not speak ill of her stepmother. In one instance, she’s in conversation with a family friend, who encourages her to be frank about her stepmother’s inconsistent behavior:
That sore had not yet healed over; but Molly resolutely kept silence, beating her brains to think of some other subject of conversation.
“Ah! I see, Molly,” said Mrs. Hamley; “you won’t tell me your sorrows, and yet, perhaps, I could have done you some good.”
“I don't like,” said Molly, in a low voice. “I think papa wouldn’t like it. And, besides, you have helped me so much—you and Mr. Roger Hamley. I often think of the things he said; they come in so usefully, and are such a strength to me.”
Here, Molly is able to acknowledge both her difficulty with her stepmother and her friend’s concern for her. Yet the way in which she talks about this distressing situation is neither one of “slanted” honesty or “complete” honesty. In this situation, she’s concerned for the dignity of her stepmother, and decides not to elaborate on her struggles out of respect for Hyacinth.
Authentic honesty, then, is oriented toward an individual and considers the way in which this person receives and processes feedback. It comes from a relationship with another person and a mutually-known desire for the person’s good. For this reason, the words “brutal” and “honest” should never be paired. Neither should the truth be slanted or watered down to make it more palatable. Molly Gibson embodies how this is done: we know ourselves well enough to gauge our true reactions, and we discern if and how we will share our reactions.
Telling the truth, then, becomes less a matter of sharing everything we’re thinking and feeling about the subject, and more about focusing our reactions, aware that the way we respond affects others, for good or for ill.