Every religion has truth as one of its founding principles, and Quakerism is no exception. In fact, so seriously do they take this that you are not supposed to promise or ‘swear oaths’ as this would constitute a ‘double standard’ of truth. Your word should be the truth at all times, so that swearing and promises are entirely unnecessary.
Such is the religious emphasis on truth that you’d imagine everyone was prone to lying all the time. But lying isn’t as easy as you’d think. It’s not just the ‘tangled web’ we spin by having to keep track of lies previously told; it’s the fact that our brains, our bodies and heart; the very spirit at the centre of us, wants us to speak the truth.
Still, as many people have spotted, there are occasions when lying is justified. To save your life – or another’s. When the truth either cannot be understood or will be misunderstood. Or to save hurting someone’s feelings.
My mother, on the other hand, always insisted on telling the exact truth. But what is the exact truth? Is truth the same thing as fact? Once when I was still living at home there was a boy who kept calling me. I didn’t want to see him any more and so I asked my mother to tell him I was out. She was horrified: ‘But you’re not out!’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But can’t you just say I am?’
She refused utterly to comply. In the end she agreed to say I was in the bath, providing – and here was the crucial thing – that I actually went and stood in the bath. I could only come out when I was given the all-clear.
But here’s the thing. It was true in a literal sense that I was in the bath, but not in the sense in which he would have understood it, ie actually bathing and – in those days of non-cordless handsets – unable to get to the phone. And it strikes me that sometimes those who insist on the absolute truth do not give very much thought as to what that is. The absolute truth in the above case would have been to say that I didn’t like the boy any more and didn’t want to see him. And yes, it would have been better in the long run to have told him so – but at age fifteen I wasn’t up to the job.
It is nowhere clearer that lying is hard than in the radio series ‘The Unbelievable Truth’ (I think there’s a TV equivalent.) In this programme contestants produce a short talk on a given subject which is nearly all lies and into which they are supposed to insert five truths. The task is to make the truths of a piece with the lies; however those who listen carefully can discern that there is a sort of rhythm to the talks. They will start off with two or three lies and then the fourth will be true.
Mind you, this is not guaranteed. It’s like the Charlie Brown cartoon about taking a True or False test and miscalculating (‘I falsed when I should have trued’.)