Numerous people have often told me that I can count on them to tell me the truth. Most of the time when I hear that phrase, it comes as a result of someone telling me what they believe is the truth and, of course, they are most often telling me what I or someone else have done wrong. I believe that when someone reminds me that I can count on them to tell me the truth, they are wearing their truth-telling as a badge of honor and believe that I will consistently seek them out to tell me the truth about myself or others. When I hear the phrase “you can rely on me to tell you the truth,” other phrases that run through my head include “I’m only telling you this for your own good” and “it hurts me to tell you this, but…”
Telling the truth is a good thing – it is a value society holds up as something that is worthy of good people and good citizens. Communities run smoothly when people tell the truth…relationships are deepened when people tell the truth…fraud is exposed when people tell the truth…all organizations need someone to say “the emperor has no clothes.” So what can be wrong with being a truth teller?
I assume most people would say that telling the truth is a virtue one should practice…and yet Aristotle never names truth-telling as one of the virtues in his Ethics. Aristotle talks about many things, most of which have to do with living in a middle ground and understanding the consequences when one practices a virtue on its edges (i.e. courage is somewhere in between cowardice and foolhardiness). In my experience, most truth tellers do not live in a middle ground…they are right and the other person is wrong. The idea or concept that the truth teller might be wrong never seems to enter that person’s mind - and that is where the truth teller errs.
To be a truth teller – and to be heard as a truth teller – people must enter into that time and place with a humble confidence (I might be wrong AND it is important for me to say this). Telling the truth is never wrong in and of itself…it can be wrong when it is approached in a manner that exhibits either bravado or foolhardiness. Truth is best told when it is asked for and, when one does not ask, the truth teller can begin by asking permission of the other person if they may speak truth to them. It may also be that truth tellers should practice the art of discernment – is this the right time to tell the truth or would waiting until another time be better? That, as St. Paul reminds the people of Ephesus, is “telling the truth in love.”