Satya, or truthfulness, is the second yama. We all know that we should be honest; when I am dishonest, I always feel a little sick inside. So why do we tell lies? Maybe we want to save a friend from hearing a painful truth, so we tell a gentle lie instead. Maybe we think the lie will benefit us or protect us in some way, or make us look better to others than the truth would. No matter what our intentions are when we lie, our dishonesty can cause hurt feelings, or upheaval within ourselves. The more lies we tell, the stronger our fear that someone will find us out. All this inner turmoil is created. It would have been better just to tell the truth to begin with and get everything out in the open. While people can be hurt by our actions or words, I’ve always found that others are hurt more when we lie about what we’ve done. For ourselves, the untruth is a lot heavier and harder to bear than whatever it was we thought was worth lying about in the first place.
Not long ago, a friend and colleague of mine left our office for a better job at a different company. The following week, another colleague emailed me to say that he hadn’t known K was leaving and he was sad he hadn’t been able to say goodbye. Had there been any kind of farewell party for her? Of course, when I opened this email my first instinct was to lie. I didn’t want to hurt this man’s feelings or make him feel excluded. But if I lied, chances are that he would find out. The party hadn’t been a secret. What would happen if someone else in the office mentioned the party in front of him? I couldn’t ask all my coworkers to join me in a lie – how childish, and how purposeless.
So I told him the truth: there’d been a small party with just our immediate workgroup, and then some of us went out for drinks. I didn’t know how he had been left off the invitation list, and I apologized, but I would tell K that he was thinking of her. I tried my best to keep it simple. I hadn’t organized either event; I thought it was just an oversight, but I truly didn’t know why this colleague hadn’t been invited. Since I wasn’t responsible, there was no reason to lie, and even if I had been the one who inadvertently neglected to invite him, there would still be no reason to lie, because a lie could have caused a lot more hurt than the original omission did.
There may be times when the truth would be far more hurtful than a lie. Consider a friend who’s just bought a hideous dress that she adores. Her dress isn’t hurting anyone (and hurting your eyes doesn’t count), so why spoil her joy in it with your interpretation of the truth? Her truth, that the dress is lovely, is just as valid a perception as yours. Or consider a group of friends where one person is being gossiped about when she’s not around. Do we need to join in on the gossip, even if every word being said is technically true? Do we need to run to our friend and repeat every harsh word that was said about her? We want to be honest, but we also want to practice ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming, reverence and love for all. At times when we cannot be honest without causing hurt, the best choice may be to be silent. Sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to say. I want to start asking myself, why do I want to say this, what reaction do I want to cause by saying these words? If I really believe that telling the truth will help someone else, or will prevent future hurt, that’s one thing; if I’m saying something to try to get others to like me, or to delight in someone else’s pain, then those words might not need to be said.