Law of Acceptable Dishonesty


Long before we go to school we are trained to be dishonest, often by well-meaning, good people. Our parents, neighbors, friends, coaches and teachers all do it. We are all taught that white lies, omissions, minimizations and exaggerations are acceptable, especially if we justify our lies as a way to protect someone’s feelings.

Law of Acceptable Dishonesty

I call this the Law of Acceptable Dishonesty, and I came to fully recognize it in myself when Jake Eagle, one of the co-founders of Live Conscious, recently recommended that I read a series of books about a character named Ender, by Orson Scott Card. I had no idea that I would use this science fiction novel as a way to enrich my life and elevate my consciousness, but that’s exactly what happened.

Reading this book I discovered an erroneous belief that most of us share—something we are taught almost before we can speak. What I’m referring to is the Law of Acceptable Dishonesty. Of course, it’s not written about or discussed, but it’s present everywhere and in my experience it’s a source of tension and conflict that lies hidden beneath the radar in our society.

It’s better to tell your Aunt Sarah that you love coming to Sunday dinner and hide her awful meatloaf in your napkin than tell her you’d rather eat out. It’s acceptable to decline an invitation to your co-worker’s party by saying you are sick rather than saying you don’t want to go. And it’s easier to listen to your sister complain about her lousy marriage than suggest she and her husband seek out a marriage counselor.

What’s the reasoning behind the Law of Acceptable Dishonesty? What is it that we fear will happen if we stop lying?

Will we hurt others?

When I sat and thought about how we teach our kids that lying is OK I began to unravel the flaws in our rationalizations. The first flaw is we believe that we may hurt each other’s feelings when we are honest. We are taught to believe that we are responsible for each other’s feelings—that it’s better to lie to you than risk you disappointing or hurting yourself if I speak honestly.

Is it hard to be honest?

We also believe that being honest is hard. We avoid being honest with one another because we think it’s difficult. Even our language supports this idea—we speak of being “brutally honest,” “laying it on the line,” and we are told, “this will be hard to hear, you better sit down.” We are taught to steel and brace ourselves before “confronting” someone with how we really feel. Often we won’t consider speaking honestly with our partners or family members unless we’re in counseling with them. We need trained professionals to help us through the pain and shock of speaking honestly with each other.

The fascinating thing is that’s not my experience—not any longer. Every time I am honest about why I don’t want to go to your party or why I don’t want to go to Sunday dinner at Aunt Sarah’s I feel better. And I feel better because I have learned to be honest in a kind and respectful way. And it isn’t hard.

I don’t have to continue to eat Aunt Sarah’s meatloaf, instead I can offer to take her out to eat: “You know Aunt Sarah, I really appreciate that you cooked for me all those years, and I want to be honest with you and tell you that I don’t really like your meatloaf. I hope that we can continue our Sunday tradition and this way you don’t have to cook and we can both eat what we really enjoy.” I can thank my co-worker for his invitation and gently remind him that I don’t like parties, but I’d love to meet him for brunch another day. And I can tell my sister that I hurt and frustrate myself when she tells me how unhappy she is in her marriage. I can suggest that by letting off steam with me, she is delaying taking action. I can remind her that when my marriage was in trouble, Bob and I went to counseling and now we’re doing well.

Speaker for the Dead

In Orson Scott Card’s books, Ender becomes a “Speaker for the Dead,” and his role is to offer an honest eulogy of the dead. He interviews family members, friends, co-workers, and citizens of the small village. He paints an honest description of how the deceased lived, worked and related with his loved ones. In speaking honestly Ender reveals the pain, fears and secrets of the dead as well as their hopes, successes, and joys. As he gently unveils the life of the deceased, the entire village is transformed. Old wounds are healed, family members are reunited and people who colluded by keeping quiet realize their mistakes. Healing takes place where decade-long rifts and disappointments had ruled.

I inspire myself reading Card’s books and I have seen how much tension I carry when I avoid speaking honestly. I don’t have to tell huge lies to feel tension in my body; even the small, seemingly innocuous evasions and omissions have a restrictive effect on my nervous system. I feel creepy and I feel a distance between myself and the person I am hiding from that wasn’t there before.

And that, for me, is the most painful thing that occurs when I lie to you. When I am dishonest, I separate myself from you. My dishonesty creates a gulf between us and the longer I ignore it the harder it is to close the gap. Instead of living separately, afraid to be honest and believing that I am responsible for your feelings, I now choose to live differently. I opt for honesty, I opt for getting really good at telling you how I feel—gently and respectfully—trusting that you are capable of hearing me because we are friends. I trust that you would rather live in ease than in the tension and separation that results from living in Acceptable Dishonesty.

When we are relating I remind myself that we are two different people. We will never see things in exactly the same way, nor will we always agree. But this doesn’t have to prevent us from being honest, nor does it have to be a source of tension.

When we respect each other we can appreciate and accept our differences.

Honesty creates safety

If I do something that causes you to frustrate yourself I want to know. If there is something about me that you irritate yourself with I want us to feel safe with each so we can talk about it. Being honest with each other creates a safe world for us to live in. We are easier with each other, kinder and more loving. When we trust each other to be honest we live in deep connection. We are free to be ourselves and love with great passion because we are safe.

What I appreciate most about the teachings of Live Conscious is that not only do I grow as I continue with my practice, but the art of Live Conscious is continually evolving as well. The stewards of Live Conscious, Jake and Hannah Eagle, are always looking to find ways to reduce tension, create more ease and reach more people. As they grow individually, they teach others, and their students in turn bring their practice into the world, reducing tensions, easing conflicts and finding more grace.


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4 Responses to Law of Acceptable Dishonesty

  1. Krystal February 14, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

    Love this Katherine, a great piece!!

  2. S Katharine Rivers February 14, 2016 at 12:55 pm #

    Thank you Krystal,

    I appreciate your comment and your love! 🙂

  3. Tina April 3, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    Enlightening post, very honest in itself. You have expressed yourself very well. Perhaps an idea for another post; how to tell the truth to people with respect and continue the relationship even stronger than before. I often find friends have drifted apart from me, due to petty reasons and haven’t tried to bridge the issue.

  4. S. Katharine Rivers April 3, 2016 at 6:48 pm #

    Dear Tina,

    Thank you for your comment and for your idea about a further post exploring honesty and making our relationships stronger. I love your idea and I too have both and lost and made friendships by being honest. I’ll see what I can do! In the meantime, I appreciate you taking the time to reach out.

    Many blessings,

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