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The Truth Hurts

May 18, 2020


“The truth hurts,” my father frequently told me.


While there is no doubt that this aphorism is largely true, it was always an unsolicited insight he offered when I was being punished. It was akin to Flannery O’Connor’s pithy observation that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.”

Why exactly did my father’s insight sting? Because when I am wrong, I want to be right. I want truth to be easy. The “truth” to which I often subscribe when I do something wrong is softer. It absolves without confession or penance. It rationalizes without logic. It forgets without reform. G.K Chesterton claimed, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong.” On my bad days, I grumble at Mr. Chesterton.

Since the truth hurts, we have a tendency to deceive ourselves. Self-deception is more convenient and less painful. It satisfies us with the good company we are in and the reasonableness we possess. Self-deception has a thousand sponsors. But it is still wrong. And there is always a reckoning. Self-deception stunts us. It arrests our development. It makes us, as Georges Bernanos so vividly put it, “stumps of men.” Or, it damns our souls.

Some of the greatest literary figures are epitomes of self-deception. They lied to themselves again and again simply because the truth hurts. Just consider Fyodor Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s brilliant novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Fyodor Karamazov was a buffoon. He said so himself.

His awkward presence in the monastery before the venerable elder, Father Zosima, was born in part out of the need for arbitration over a financial dispute with his son, in part out of curiosity, and in part out of shameless showmanship. Karamazov had an impression to make upon this great man.

The ramshackle receiving room was filled with an eclectic mix of personalities. Monks and scholars, an atheist and a businessman, a sensualist and a saint. Karamazov had his audience. As he cajoled and flattered, yammered and embellished, his two sons (a novice and an intellectual) silently stood mortified. Indeed, their father was a buffoon.

But in a room of growing impatience and flushed embarrassment, the great elder Zosima only smiled. He moved and breathed with gentleness. With tender eyes, but a steady gaze, he addressed Karamazov and his antics:

The important thing is to stop lying to yourself. A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself as well as for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love and, in order to divert himself, having no love in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest forms of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal, in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying—lying to others and to yourself.

Or consider the namesake in Leo Tolstoy’s mesmerizing Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina was a sophisticate. Married to a high-ranking government official and the proud mother of a little boy, she was the picture of cultivation. She belonged to the right circles and frequented the choice events. Adorned in the finest couture and carrying herself with the most sublime grace, her beauty was arresting. Clearly, she was the idol and envy of Russian high society.

Except that she was broken.

Abandoning a marriage gone cold, Anna left everything: her husband, her son, her place in society, and her enduring sense of right and wrong when she indulged in an affair with the dashing Count Alexei Vronsky. Together, they would have sumptuous living, a smaller circle of friends, and a baby daughter. Anna, still not divorced, was convinced that she should be happy. After all, “she had all that she needed.”

But it was more complicated than that. When her beloved sister-in-law, Dolly, came to visit her—one of the few former acquaintances who deigned to do so—she was elated. Dolly, in approaching Anna and Alexei’s estate, endured a passing wave of despair. In Dolly’s mental image, Anna had “found herself,” while Dolly was languishing in the daily drudgery of financial pressures, child-rearing, and the weariness of aging.

As the two sisters met, there was so much to say. Here were two dear friends—each an unspoken criterion for the other—against whom they could honestly and discreetly check their decisions and emotions. What they discovered, however, was unexpected.

The longer Dolly stayed amidst the wealth and beauty and sophistication, the more she became uncomfortable. A patina of propriety did not change the underlying sin. And as she listened to Anna offering her stories of contentment, Dolly could too acutely see Anna’s veiled misery. Anna saw Dolly as she had always been—principled, practical, and steadfast. Anna’s love for Vronsky and her baby girl could not obscure the creeping realization of what she herself had lost.

The night before her departure, Dolly said her prayers and went to bed. Though she made this visit with misgivings of the life she was living compared to Anna, Dolly now mused,

The memories of home and of her children rose up in her imagination with a peculiar charm quite new to her, with a sort of new brilliance. That world of her own seemed to her now so sweet and precious that she would not on any account spend an extra day outside it, and she made up her mind that she would certainly go back the next day.

And Anna, remaining behind to live the life she had chosen, watched her friend’s carriage recede into the distance.

Anna was sad. She knew that now, from Dolly’s departure, no one again would stir up within her soul the feeling that had been roused by their conversation. It hurt her to stir up these feelings, but yet she knew that that was the best part of her soul, and that that part of her soul would quickly be smothered in the life she was leading.

Both women entered the encounter deceiving themselves about the lives they were living. As their visit came to an end, they had both encountered a glimmer of truth. One departed with assurance, while the other remained with despair.

My father was right. And so were Chesterton and O’Connor, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. We all have a tendency to lie because the truth hurts. Big lies, small lies, white lies to God, to others, and to ourselves. Oh yes, pain may be postponed. Pleasure may be retained. The reckoning may seem far, far away. But bathed in deception, here we sit—stumps of men.

Let’s not lie to ourselves anymore.

The truth hurts.

But it also heals.