The inconvenient truth

Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty

We’re coming towards the end of considering the perfection of truthfulness in the light of Sam Harris’ essay, Lying.

In a section of the essay called Lies in Extremis, there is an example of how being truthful, when telling the convenient lie would have been easy, turns out to have unexpected rewards.

(from Sam Harris’ essay, Lying):
…it is far more common to find ourselves in situations in which, though we are tempted to lie, honesty will lead us to form connections with people who might otherwise have been adversaries. In this vein, I recall an encounter I had with a U.S. Customs officer upon returning from my first trip to Asia, nearly twenty-five years ago.

The year was 1987, but it might as well have been the Summer of Love: I was twenty, had hair down to my shoulders, and was dressed like an Indian rickshaw driver. For those charged with enforcing our nation’s [USA] drug laws, it would have been only prudent to subject my luggage to special scrutiny. Happily, I had nothing to hide.

“Where are you coming from?” the officer asked, glancing skeptically at my backpack.

“India, Nepal, Thailand…” I said.

“Did you take any drugs while you were over there?”

As it happens, I had. The temptation to lie was obvious — why speak to a customs officer about my recent drug use? But there was no real reason not to tell the truth, apart from the risk that it would lead to an even more thorough search of my luggage (and perhaps of my person) than had already commenced.

“Yes,” I said.

The officer stopped searching my bag and looked up. “Which drugs did you take?

“I smoked pot a few times… And I tried opium in India.” “Opium?”

“Yes.”

“Opium or heroin?

“It was opium.”

“You don’t hear much about opium these days.” “I know. It was the first time I’d ever tried it.” “Are you carrying any drugs with you now?” “No.”

The officer eyed me warily for a moment and then returned to searching my bag. Given the nature of our conversation, I reconciled myself to being there for a very long time. I was, therefore, as patient as a tree. Which was a good thing, because the officer was now examining my belongings as though any one item — a toothbrush, a book, a flashlight, a bit of nylon cord — might reveal the deepest secrets of the universe.

“What is opium like?” he asked after a time.

And I told him. In fact, over the next ten minutes, I told this lawman almost everything I knew about the use of mind-altering substances. Eventually he completed his search and closed my luggage. One thing was perfectly obvious at the end of our encounter: We both felt very good about it.

A more quixotic self stands revealed. I’m not sure that I would have precisely the same conversation today. I would not lie, but I probably wouldn’t work quite so hard to open such a novel channel of communication. Nevertheless, I continue to find that a willingness to be honest — especially about truths that one might be expected to conceal — often leads to much more gratifying exchanges with other human beings.

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Filed under Perfections, Speech

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