The isolation of honesty

I’ve been thinking about honesty a lot lately. Our country is undergoing a crisis of honesty, where we can’t rely on some of our institutions and media to tell us the truth, and thus can’t rely on others to have the truth to give us. Being “honest” these days can be fraught, difficult, uncertain, confusing.

Interpersonal honesty has always been difficult for me, as well. I am a people-pleaser and I desire harmony. (It’s the Enneagram 9 I keep thinking might be me, rather than the Enneagram 5 I tested as.) I have tended to please people and work for their harmony at the expense of my own. Trying out honesty this year (something I want to continue growing into as we venture cautiously and trepidatiously into 2021) has resulted in some uncomfortable and difficult conversations.

We often tout honesty as being that which allows true connection. We can’t develop relationships with people we don’t know; we can’t know people if they aren’t honest with us about who they are.

But I don’t think we acknowledge that honesty can be a profoundly isolating experience. The more honest we are, the more isolated we realize we are, islands of meaning unto ourselves. Each of us is a completely unique bundle of genes and experiences. We have been formed by our biology, by our upbringing, by the way we “feel” the world with our specific sense capacity, and we now see and interpret the world through that unique and inaccessible-to-others lens. Being honest risks exposing just how different we are from others. It’s easy to think that being honest with someone will easily enable connection, but it just as easily can lead to a confusion on the part of the other — she, by definition, does not experience or see the world the way we do, so the more honest we are about how we see it, the less she is able to truly understand us and enter into the inaccessible world revealed by our honesty. Similarly, she has her own unique world that is inaccessible to us; we can only enter so far into the real worlds of others before we experience the gap, the leap, the point where we have to say “I don’t and cannot understand the world you are presenting, even though I can accept and appreciate that you are describing something real.”

In that moment, we can also kind of experience a new way of connection, one borne of the realization that we are all lost as singular of ourselves, longing for a connection we can’t really and fully find. We open ourselves to others in the vulnerability of not being able to be fully understood. We open ourselves up to trusting others to love us and believe us even though they can’t really, fully, truly know us.

I think part of being a good friend and partner is in managing that epistemic gap well, of trusting the other person to be good and loving in that part we can’t ever know. It also involves being gracious to others knowing that they may struggle managing that gap, in accepting uncertainty about us. Then, of course, to working to accepting our own uncertainty about those we love, to giving them the space to be honest and not expecting them to be honest in the way we will perfectly understand and recognize. Does it need to be said? That is easy to say and really hard to do.

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