Tag Archives: honesty

Negotiating relationships

It is scary being totally honest with another person. Talking about the things that are most raw and relevant around how you feel, what you want, what works for you and what doesn’t. It can be terrifying as it leaves you wide open to being judged and you give the other person in the conversation all the keys to your most vulnerable parts. Not everyone is worthy of that kind of trust, certainly.

And then, if they will do the same for you and share their truth then you may have to look at where that doesn’t fit together. What one of you craves may be off limits for the other. What one of you struggles with may have been mistakenly repeated by the other. Squaring up to having got things wrong for another person is uncomfortable to say the least. It may be more tempting to get defensive and justify what you’ve done rather than listen and learn. That of course is an honesty-killer.

Often you can’t tell if someone will prove worthy of that trust without exploring what happens when you share. To be as open and honest as you can be and have that turned against you is a nasty experience – I certainly have t-shirts for that one. For each knock back the process of getting up and trying again with someone else is hard. But equally, each time someone responds in kind with open hearted truth, it gets easier.

So much more is possible when you can be that real with someone else. It’s true in every kind of relationship shape. If you can speak honestly and be heard, if you can listen open-heartedly and if there is respect on both sides, anything can be worked through. The possibilities grow tremendously. In friendships and romances alike, so much more is available when you can afford to put your heart on your sleeve. Without the risk taking of opening up, there’s far less scope for understanding, and for the magic you can co-create when you’re working open heartedly with another person.

Without deep honesty we’re mostly stuck playing out socially prescribed roles. We take relationship shapes that seem normal, and re-enact them no matter how ill suited we are for the part. We do what we think we are supposed to do – and that can be a narrow, miserable sort of outcome with no magic in it at all. Our standard-issue relationship shapes don’t allow for the nuances of specific people, and it’s only when we approach each other with honesty that we can have relationships based on who we are, not who we think we should be.


Honesty and touch

My whole adult life there has been a steady supply of men who put their hands on me without my consent. I’ve had one round of successfully persuading a chap who was rather too hands on with me to stop because it wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve gone a lot of rounds being told that it means nothing, they do this to everyone and that they weren’t prepared to make the effort to remember not to do it to me. There has repeatedly been pressure to accept this contact passively. I also note that the vast majority of ‘I do it to everyone’ guys do not in fact treat guys this way.

There’s a lot of entitlement underpinning the idea that your right to touch someone is more important than their right to say ‘no’ to being touched. There’s also something very weird (I think) about touching someone and claiming it means nothing. I’ve been the recipient of kisses on these terms as well. I do not want to be kissed by people who mean nothing by it. I find it immensely disturbing.

My suspicion is that the men who do this get something out of it that they aren’t willing to be honest about  – be that the pleasure of touch, or the pleasure of making a female-presenting person like myself accept them doing this – it could be a power trip. If you can touch someone and make them accept that, you have all the power in a situation. If you can touch someone you desire and then tell them you don’t find them attractive so they aren’t allowed to make anything of it, there’s all kinds of power-over going on.

Why haven’t I resisted more strenuously? To avoid awkward escalation. Because I’ve felt that if I protested I might be entirely rejected – a perfectly reasonable fear. Because I am easily persuaded that of course no one finds me attractive so it can’t be coming from there. I also find touch emotionally affecting, so if someone touches me as though they love me, or desire me, that can have a really big impact on me, and can do so quickly. To then hear that it meant nothing and I should make nothing of it is unsettling to say the least.

I have learned over multiple rounds of this that I am not supposed to respond at all. The ideal response from the perspective of those dishing it out, is to passively accept whatever is done to me. If I question it, there can be backlash. If I respond to it with affection, or Gods help me, with anything that could be read as desire, the slapbacks can be nasty. In these situations, it is not my place to do anything active and that, frankly, makes me very cross and very unhappy. Every time I’ve tried to talk about this I’ve found that the men doing it feel it is fair for them to touch me, and not fair for me to respond. It’s a line of thought I am pretty sure is held together by our wider culture – that male access to female bodies is a right, and that active female sexuality is unpleasant. We are to be appealing and quietly manhandled and make no comment.

If you want to touch someone purely on your own terms, with no reference to what they do, or do not want, you shouldn’t be touching them at all. If touching people means nothing to you, then you should not be touching them. If you desire someone and want to touch them on those terms, you should have the decency to own it, and not gaslight them by telling them it is something else entirely.


How to trust

I admit I am not naturally good at trusting people. As a consequence, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the terms on which I might be willing to trust. What qualities is it that make a person trustworthy? If my trust is going to be partial (it usually is) then to what degrees and in what ways does it make sense to trust people?

I think too often we go into situations assuming other people should trust us. The flip side of not trusting, is not expecting to be trusted and expecting to have to earn that.

  • Backing up words with actions. I don’t expect people to take me at my word until I’ve demonstrated that I can and will do what I said I’d do. However, I do get annoyed when I’ve repeatedly demonstrated I can do the things, and am still treated as untrustworthy in those areas. At that point, refusal to trust becomes a way of reducing and controlling a person.
  • New and different mistakes. We all make mistakes. I don’t find errors to be a barrier to trust unless a person keeps making the same mistakes after they’ve been flagged up. When someone persists in causing the same problem in the same way, it looks a lot like intention, not incompetence.
  • Thinking things through: I tend to trust people who demonstrate a willingness to work things through and reason things out. What I trust here is that this kind of process shows willingness to see things differently and to seek solutions rather than blame. I can trust the integrity of someone’s reasoning without needing them to agree with me or see things as I do.
  • Physical trust. This is a hard one for me – to trust another person both to be kind to my body if I get close, and to trust them not to have a problem with me. I’m an emotionally intense person, and it is hard to hide that when being hugged. Trusting people to accept me as I am and not to take physical advantage is hard. It takes time.
  • I do not trust people who don’t listen to me. I do not trust people who show signs of treating me like a resource they can use. I do not trust people who take me for granted, or people who treat any emotional expression from me as though I am a massive drama queen. It’s taken me a long time to trust that I’m not a massive drama queen and do not deserve to be dismissed at the first sign of emotional expression.
  • In terms of trying to earn trust, I offer honesty and clarity. At least with words. And enough honesty to make clear that I habitually lie with my body. I don’t express pain, depression, anxiety, or exhaustion if I can help it. I hide those things because this helps me function. But I will speak honestly. It means asking people to trust what I say, not what I look like. I am more inclined to trust in turn people who take me at my word rather than seeing how I present and how it doesn’t fit their expectations around what a person in pain should look like. In turn, I will trust people’s words. If someone tells me something, I will assume that is the more substantial truth than any appearances that seem to conflict with it. I can’t say this always goes well, but it is a deliberate choice to do for others what I am often asking for myself.

Trust is a process. It is something you have to build between people. Granted, most people are good and well meaning. The trouble is, that you cannot immediately see the ones who are narcissists, abusers, assaulters, rapists. They tend to be good at passing themselves off as ok, at least in the short term. It’s how they get to do their stuff. The percentage of people I’ve known who have turned out not to be good, or been thoroughly vile, is a small percentage, but they have had a large impact on me. As a consequence, I do not tend to trust the people who treat my innate lack of trust as a failing of some sort. My lack of trust is protective.


Kindness and honesty

This week I read an excellent article by Meg-John Barker, about kindness and honesty – it’s over here https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/conflict-break-up/kindness-and-honesty-can-we-have-one-without-the-other/ and it has got me thinking about how we frame honesty in the normal scheme of things.

Often honesty is presented as a hard thing – to be brutally honest. Telling it like it is, adds a slapdown into a conversation that implies that how the other person thinks it is, is wrong, rubbish, useless. Hard truth is something we have to take. There’s often something macho and combative about it. I’ve seen the notion that what is being said is the truth used to justify a great deal of innate unkindness. Truth and honesty can be a way of excusing, or justifying verbal aggression, putdowns and meanness.

We also tend to encounter truth in a singular form. I think this has a lot to do with the dominance of monotheistic religions. One God. One truth. One true way. In practice, truth can depend a lot on perspective. People don’t tend to come to conclusions about things for no reason at all, and if you aren’t willing or able to square up to why they hold something as truth, challenging it will only entrench them. We may want plain and simple truth, but often truth turns out to be a messy, multifaceted thing, full of history and perception, and belief even when there seem to be a lot of ‘hard facts’ involved.

Keats took us round the notion that beauty is truth, truth beauty. Beauty is a very subjective idea, more in the eye of the beholder than truth is normally held to be. In terms of applying ideas to life, I’ve found this notion reliably useless. It doesn’t help me do anything, it doesn’t tell me anything. It just sounds good. But what if truth is kindness? Certainly the reversal isn’t true, apparent kindness cannot be counted on to be truth. As the blog I linked to points out, kindness that isn’t true is just setting up some serious unkindness for later on.

I think there’s a huge problem in how we all talk to each other – especially around politics – that truth justifies unkindness. That to have your honesty taken seriously, you must be brutal and pull no punches. That kindness is inherently a bit suspect, and is probably softening or fudging something rather than dealing with how it really is. The idea of brutal truth supports toxic behaviour. It justifies being abusive to people we think know less than us and have poor reasoning skills rather than feeling obliged to try and help them. Brutal honesty also enables people who want to have their conversations by hurling insults and criticism – and if you challenge it, well, that’s because you’re a snowflake and can’t hear how things really are.

I’m going to look harder for kindness in truth, and be less willing to accept that truth itself is a reason to accept unkindness from those dishing out their certainties.


Emotional Honesty

Word based honesty has always been very important to me. If I can be properly honest, I will be, although I recognise that there are times when honesty isn’t honourable. Truth can kill people, in some contexts. If I need to protect someone, then my preference is omission and misdirection rather than outright untruth because these cause less trouble and are easier to unpick later on.

Of course, most lying happens for a reason, and not all of it is conscious. The reasons always seem good to the person doing the lying – self protection, harm and pain avoidance, avoiding punishment and reputation damage are likely to seem good ideas. We lie in small, and less small ways to ourselves and others about how good we are, how many people love us or depend on us, and this is all about needing to feel secure. Much of the time this kind of dishonesty isn’t a major problem, but the bigger the lie, the bigger the consequences if it catches up with you. The person who has greatly invested in a lie of self worth, telling themselves and those around them how fantastic and important they are, can be setting themselves up for the most almighty fall.

I know that I have trouble being honest around a number of issues. I’ve spent years refusing to look properly at issues of pain, depression, anxiety and exhaustion, telling myself that what matters is the soldiering on regardless. I got to the point in the last year of no longer having the means to do that – the lie caught up to me, my body cannot take it anymore. I have to start facing up to my own limitations, admitting they exist, and being honest with myself, and everyone else, about what I can and can’t do.

Alongside this I’ve come to recognise that while I’m very emotionally honest if using words, I do my level best to lie with my body language – again mostly about pain, exhaustion and fear. I’ll try and put a brave face on it. I lie a lot by omission around these issues, too. Again, this summer this has caught up with me, and I’ve reached places of can’t do this anymore. It’s requiring me to think a lot about how I present myself to others, the effort involved in masking, and the possible consequences of not doing that.

I lie to make life easier for other people. I lie in fear that if I am honest, people will think I am attention seeking or making a fuss. Sometimes I lie about things because it seems more professional to do so, and I have to wonder about how much of that goes on out there. When did being professional become more important than being real, or being human? I lie because it’s easier than having to explain.

How much of this should I change? How much do I want to change? How much of this is about changing what I do, and my choice of situations? I’m going to try and be more conscious about where I’m quietly lying about how I’m doing, and see whether those are really situations I need to be in, or whether, for the greater part, I can step away from the spaces where I don’t feel it’s safe or appropriate to be honest. I’m tired of pretending to be better than I am.


Courage, delusion and the Prince of Fools

Courage was considered a virtue by the heroic cultures many modern Pagans look back to for inspiration. However, once you start prodding it in earnest, courage turns out to be a rather complicated thing.

I’ve spent the last few days reading Mark Lawrence’s novel ‘Prince of Fools’. Book one of a dark fantasy trilogy, running in parallel time-wise with his Thorns trilogy. I really like Mark as an author. He can do plot and action, he balances light and dark superbly so you’re always in your toes, but sometimes giggling, his craftsmanship with words is superb, and there are layers. Start digging around in what holds the plot together, and there are weighty concepts about what it means to be human. These are qualities I very much appreciate in a book. He’s also a lovely person.

After some deliberation, I feel that the key themes in Prince of Fools, for me were cowardice/courage and self-delusion. The interplay between the two in the narrative is also fascinating. The first person narrator ‘hero’ self-identifies as a coward. Jalan prefers running away to fighting and getting out of things tends to appeal to him more than sorting them out or facing responsibility. Much of this is held together by a total refusal to think too much about anything – a form of protective self-deluding there, which keeps him from the consequences of what he does, and does not do. His companion, Snorri, seems brave, he’s certainly driven, but there is no small amount of refusing to think making that apparent bravery possible, too.

The theory that Mark puts forward, through Jalan, is that everyone is afraid. Everyone is in the business of running away, it’s just a case of what you fear most. The person who fears dishonour more than death will run towards a fight, not away from it, quite simply. They may be no less afraid, it’s just a different fear. I note for myself that I can be careless of my own pain and physical damage, but fear causing discomfort – even minor emotional discomfort – to others. Which has interesting influences on my choices.

Without fear in the mix, it’s very hard to call anything brave. It may just be stupid, unimaginative, misguided. To be brave, you have to know what there is to be afraid of. It’s an interesting question as to whether, having identified the biggest fear, you can then bravely run away from it towards something that also offers challenges. I am inclined to think that the naming and owning of the fear might well be the bravest part of the whole process. To know what frightens you most is to know yourself, and to be honest about your fear is to be more authentic.

However, Mark doesn’t leave it there, because the theme of not being honest with yourself about fear runs through the book. It takes a certain amount of dishonesty to keep going when the things to be afraid of are big enough to easily break you. It takes a certain kind of deliberate forgetting and denying to stay sane in the face of horror and trauma.  A person with PTSD needs to forget – because it is the remembering that takes you apart. What do we lay down of past and self in order to face the future? What lies do we have to tell ourselves in order to be able to act? When failure seems inevitable, the heroic path may depend entirely on your ability to believe otherwise. To die for a cause is to be able to believe it’s worth it right up until the last breath, despite all evidence to the contrary.

We tend to hold honesty as a virtue, but it is also worth considering what the little lies and bigger ones we tell ourselves allow us to do, for well or woe.

(More about the book here – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18693743-prince-of-fools)


Abuse of language and person

I had a discussion with a friend a bit back, in which I commented on the issues of saying ‘I suck’ and she said…”What I think he really means is…” It gave me a double take. What on earth were we doing, trying to interpret so simple a statement? I’ve had situations where I apparently should have understood ‘never’ to mean something less absolute, and where my saying ‘no’ was not understood as ‘no’ by the person hearing me. This is dangerous territory.

I can point at a few things that got us here. There’s the pop-psychology stream, giving us a tenuous shared grasp of interpretation. What does he really mean? What is she implying? It’s become more relevant because parts of modern life are full of double speak. When someone selling a property says ‘spacious feeling’ we know the place is probably small. Any time a politician opens their mouth, we expect them to say something other than what they mean, carefully hedged so that afterwards they can pretend they were honest with us all along. We’ve learned to mistrust apparently plain speech.

The idea that someone means something other than what they’ve said feeds the passive aggressive approach, and is fed by it. “Fine” does not always means fine. Sometimes it means furious. “Do what you like” can mean “do what I want you to do or suffer the consequences.” It can also be the defeated whimper of a person who has given up trying to get themselves heard, and that can be problematic, too.

The trouble with interpretation, is that you can read anything in, and insist on its presence regardless of what the person speaking tells you they meant. You can go further and decide the other person had unconscious impulses that make your interpretation right. If you want to do something they are not consenting to, deciding you can interpret their unspoken desires is a route to doing as you please. “I know what you really want” is a dangerous and destructive line to take.

We second guess each other. We look for deeper meanings and implications that weren’t there. All too often we ignore the possibility that the surface language was fair and true. If we can’t tune into each other’s distortions and double speak at this point, we are doomed to mutual incomprehension. Then we can follow through by blaming each other for lying and misleading.

Language is a flawed, but also fantastic tool. It is the underpinning of human co-operation and we depend upon it to share and develop ideas. And yet we deploy it carelessly, and bend other peoples’ to distort their meanings. We do not say what we mean and then get angry when other people fail to understand us. Or we get angry with the people who do carefully speak and understand in literal ways.

We need to say what we mean. We also need to assume other people are saying what they mean because it’s probably the only hope we have of weaning each other off passive-aggressive language use. We need to give a good, hard look at those facets of our culture that are corrupting language with on-going misuse. Or we end up unable to talk meaningfully with each other, interpreting ‘I never want to do that,’ as ‘maybe later’ and “you are hurting me,” as “I like this, please do it again.”

I gather it is a Domestic Abuse awareness week here in the UK. I’d like to point out that wilful re-interpretation and misinterpretation can go a long way to enabling abuse. When nothing you say is taken at face value, it is impossible to speak. Your words will be reinterpreted to suit the inclinations of your abuser. When nothing they say is to be taken at face value, and you might be harmed if you don’t understand what they really want, words become weapons. They become the justification for weapons. Interpretation can become a reason for violence, for forced sex, for shouting and breaking things. The implications are huge.

Taking a person at their word is an important mark of respect. If that is taken from you, the damage to your sense of self is massive. Being able to trust what you hear is essential if you are to feel secure. If you’ve got to constantly second-guess what is being said to you, then you never feel safe or comfortable, you are always anxious and on edge. That’s no way to live. If a wrong interpretation will lead to a denigrating bout of verbal abuse, or a bodily assault, you learn to be really afraid of getting it wrong. You also feel like this is your fault and responsibility – you are the one too stupid to understand, so it’s because of your mistakes that you are assaulted. There’s huge psychological implications to feeling that way. It destroys your sense of self.

This is what we do to each other when we let over-interpretation go unchallenged. We make a culture in which some women are not able to say no to sex because their words are twisted to mean other things. We make a culture in which some men think its ok to hit the person who didn’t get what they really meant. If we stop abusing the language we will edge in the direction of not abusing each other.


Lying to Harry Potter

I gather that the impulse to lie to children is widespread. All the plots in Harry Potter depend heavily on it with the ‘good’ adults doing it at least as much as the ‘evil’ ones do. It comes up plenty of other places too. No, fiction is not real life, but the ideas that make sense in fiction do so because they have real life relevance. As a parent I’m familiar enough with the desire to be thought well of by my child. Who wouldn’t want that? There is also the terrible desire to want the world to be a good, fair and lovely place for him, and not to want to have to tell him how awful things can be out there.
It’s normal to lie to children and tell them that everything is going to be fine, even when we’re pretty certain it’s not. (Think about how Umbridge behaves around defence against the dark arts issues). Sooner or later the child grows up and gets some experiences that don’t sit right with the lovely, safe world you wanted to create for them. I remember that transition as not only uncomfortable, but undermining my trust in my parents. Many children are smart and alert enough to pick up on the standard lies, and I doubt there’s much comfort to be had in feeling your parents (or Umbridge for that matter) aren’t willing to be straight with you. Lying to them is more about our comfort than theirs, all too often.
This is one of those issues where what is normal conflicts with what is right. Lie to your children and no one will think the less of you. We lie to ourselves alongside it, we say ‘it’ll be better for little Johnny this way’ when really it will be easier for us. (Think about Snape, Dumbledore, Sirius Black). We can so easily project our motives, needs and feelings onto our own children and then go after the things that will serve those needs, whilst telling ourselves what excellent parents we are (Sirius) . I try very hard to make sure I’m not doing that. But then, the idea that our children should come first in all things is culturally ingrained – especially for women, I think. (Harry Potter’s mother personifies this). Saying ‘I want this for me’ feels a lot less comfortable than pretending to be doing it for them and there’s a lot of cultural encouragement to go about this the wrong way as a consequence.
I still carry a feeling of affront that the world is not a fair place, people in authority cannot be trusted (Ministry for magic), and poetic justice seldom shows up. I know most ugly ducklings do not get to be swans (even if Hermione does), and that wicked stepmothers are not reliably thwarted by the direct consequences of their own evil actions. I grew up with all the stories about what the world should be like – as did most people. What I needed was a little more Han Solo saying ‘life isn’t fair, Princess’ and The Goblin King’s observations on the subject: I wonder what your basis for comparison is?
I’ve run into people along the way who are horrified by my determination to be honest with my child. He knows I’m not perfect. He also has an awareness that it’s not all about him. He is not Harry Potter. I will put him first more often than not, but I have limits and he knows about them. He doesn’t expect the world to revolve around him, nor is he waiting for a patronus to come out of a lamp and grant all his wishes. There are times when we have the news on, or are talking about badgers, or the state of the world when I would give anything to be able to reassure him that it’s all going to be fine. He wouldn’t believe me if I did. He pays too much attention. I’d rather have his earned trust than mislead him.
I cannot give my child the world he deserves, where justice shows up with a wand if all else fails, where happily ever after is pretty much a given and good things eventually find their way to good people. He’s made me acutely aware that I can, and should, do more to try and make that a reality. Unlike fiction, reality does not produce tidy story lines and coherent resolutions. One thing Harry Potter reminds me, is how powerless kids feel when you lie to them, how angry and disrespected (the entirety of book 5). I want to do something different.


Sweet little lies

My son has a tremendous interest in ethical questions. He’s particularly fascinated by the ethics of lying, such that this has been a significant topic of conversation lately. Now, the simple answer here is that lying is unethical. But of course there’s the line ‘If Hitler is at the front door and Anne Frank in the attic’. There are times when the only honourable thing to do is to lie. There are many people who lived and escaped persecution only because someone hid them and lied for them. Everyone who helped a Jewish person flee the Nazis. Any movement that resists oppression and tyranny depends on subterfuge to some degree. The underground railroad. When the state itself becomes evil, following the law is not the most honourable choice.

Most of us will not find ourselves in a Hitler/Anne Frank scenario. I hope. But every day presents us with opportunities to be more or less honest. Lies by omission are common. The things we let slide, don’t mention. The little injustices we allow to pass unchallenged. The little mistakes we cover up. Most of the time, these don’t make a lot of odds in the grand scheme of things, but when they do, situations can suddenly run out of control and either you have to fess up, or their follows a process of having to tell more lies to hide the first one. Not a good place to be, not an honourable solution, and frequently, not something that allows for a fix. The person who can admit to a mistake has the space to learn, repair, improve. The person who denies ballsing things up cannot redeem themselves, and cannot learn. Appearing to be right, at the expense of actually being right, will cost you dearly in the long run, more often than not.

Then there are the lies we tell to spare someone’s feelings. The theory being that a lie to avoid pain is kinder. That is true sometimes, but at others, it sets people up for a fall. The person whose failings are not pointed out to them can have a seriously inflated self opinion, and sooner or later will run into a bit of reality, and find they aren’t the best novelist who ever lived, after all. I gather current TV shows frequently make ‘entertainment’ by laughing at people who think they’re far better than they really are. The kinder thing to do would have been to point it out sooner. Thinking you are something, and finding you are not, can be far more traumatic than dealing with the truth early on. And again, there’s scope to change. If someone points out where you are failing, you can learn, improve, become what you want to be. The person who wrongly believes they know it already is being denied all kinds of opportunities to really achieve.

There are the lies of convenience. Most people, when they ask how you are, want a short, reassuring answer. It can be tempting to give that. I spent years lying to everyone around me, by saying  ‘a bit tired’ ‘just a bit under the weather’ when I visibly wasn’t ok, rather than saying what was going on. I did it to spare the people around me, and I did it to protect the person who was depriving me of sleep, undermining my self-esteem and abusing my body. Crazy. But like a lot of women in my situation, I didn’t want to face up to the implications of what was happening to me. Easier to blame myself, than the father of my child. Had I spoken the truth, someone could have pointed out to me that things were not ok. I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone thinking ill of my ex back then. And I also wondered if people would just agree with him, that it was my fault for being too demanding, too emotional, too… whatever it was that week.

When I started being honest about what had happened, I found warmth and support. I found versions of me that weren’t deemed useless, ridiculous, over reacting and unreasonable. I was told that the things I felt, wanted, needed, were the least a human should have. I wish I had dared to trust sooner.

One of the things I learned from this, is that if you consider yourself to be an honourable person and do not feel safe in being honest, it is time to question the situation you are in. It may not be Hitler at the door, but something external is quite probably awry. If you have a mindset that leans towards taking on responsibility, then it can be easy to internalise blame, to carry things that are not yours, and so forth. When honesty feels dangerous, there is serious work to do, somewhere.

The decision to lie should never been taken lightly. If it’s to avoid inconvenience, or for some other short term gain, it’s worth weighing up what the bigger picture looks like and what the ultimate cost might be. Difficult truth can be handled with tact and care. Mistakes need to be owned. And if it’s not safe to be honest, start thinking about an exit strategy.

For myself, I’d rather tell the truth as far as is humanly possible, come what may. But I do not currently have an attic, much less any Jewish girls depending on me for their lives. In that scenario, you can bet I’d be lying my ass off.


The art of apology

Three parts of an honourable apology – recognition, responsibility, restoration.

We all make mistakes, and it would be unproductive to base any ideas about honour on a requirement to be super-human and perfect in all things. It’s not freedom from error that defines a person’s honour so much as what we do when we cock up. I started dissecting the idea of apology for my son, who is always full of questions about how things work and why. What is the difference between a good apology, and a hollow one? This is what we came up with.

First there must be recognition of what the problem is. It’s easy to say ‘I’m sorry’ without ever grasping what the problem is. Saying it to make the complainant go away may be easy, but it’s not very honourable. Expressing recognition of the cause of the problem shows the person who you are talking to, that you are taking this seriously. You are taking them seriously, and you care. Also, without the clarity that you understand the problem, the other two stages are impossible. Often, when we err it’s not in malice, but in ignorance or obliviousness. When that happens, the recognition stage means taking the time to find out what happened. It may be that the other person was hurt by something we did not intend should hurt them, or that we would not be hurt by. In those circumstances, it can be easy to reject the wounded one, and add to their sense of injustice. Recognising the problem means that doesn’t happen. “I hear you,” is a powerful thing when it is meant.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” is not a true apology. It may count as sympathy. A true apology takes responsibility. If you’re clear about where the problem was, that’s not difficult, which is why stage one is so important. It can become more complex when you don’t feel responsible – if the other person seems to have over reacted, misread your intentions or otherwise got the wrong end of the stick. It can be tempting, in such situations to say “I hear you, but it’s not my fault,” and sometimes that is indeed the best call. Being pressured into apologising for something you had no control over, is not helpful, nor is it good for you. So, the recognition of responsibility stage may require that the other person recognises where their own responses, assumptions, baggage etc have come into play. But if you do the recognition stage, and approach this without accusation or a desire to blame, it can resolve matters. More often than not, there’s some detail that we can improve. Some small way of being kinder, recognising a vulnerability, treading gently, that helps improve things. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, but I realise I have.” That kind of language can work miracles.

Finally we come to the restoration. If you are truly sorry, then it is important to mend what has been damaged. There isn’t always a physical thing to fix, but a promise to be more careful in the future, to remember what has happened here and not let it happen again, can make a lot of difference. “I had no idea that would upset you. I won’t behave in that way again.” If it’s meant, the promise helps to heal damage.

This is not just a model for apologising, but also for accepting apology. It’s no good taking the moral high ground and then refusing to acknowledge one, or all of these stages. When we feel wounded, it’s important to be clear about why, not assume the other person should know, or automatically think it was done deliberately. We have to give time and space to considering responsibility, and look at our own share. If we are offended, how much of that belongs to us, and how much to the offence? It can vary a lot. And if we can, it is better to let others fix things they have broken, it rebalances the relationship. Then, whatever went wrong can all be let go of, lesson learned. It doesn’t lie around festering unpleasantly.

Hollow apologies that we do not mean and will not act on, are not very far from outright lies, but they sound good. They sound like we care. It’s important not to let the hollow apology through, not to accept them when they come, and not to give second, third, fourth chances based on them.