Openness to Challenge.
The Road Less Travelled...
By M. Scott Peck, M.D.

Truth about lies

What does a life of total dedication to truth mean? It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.

There are many, psychiatrists among them, who stringently examine the world but not so stringently examine themselves. They may be competent individuals as the world judges competence, but they are never wise. The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action. In the past in American culture, contemplation has not been held in high regard. In the 1950s people labeled Adlai Stevenson an "egghead" and believed he would not make a good President precisely because he was a contemplative man, given to deep thinking and self-doubts. I have heard parents tell their adolescent children in all seriousness, "You think too much." What an absurdity this is, given the fact that it is our frontal lobes, our capacity to think and to examine ourselves that most makes us human. Fortunately, such attitudes seem to be changing, and we are beginning to realize that the sources of danger to the world lie more within us than outside, and that the process of constant self-examination and contemplation is essential for ultimate survival. Still, I am talking of relatively small numbers of people who are changing their attitudes. Examination of the world without is never as personally painful as examination of the world within, and it is certainly because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the majority steer away from it. Yet when one is dedicated to the truth this pain seems relatively unimportant--and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful) the farther one proceeds on the path of self-examination.

A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism of other map-makers. Otherwise we live in a closed system--within a bell jar... rebreathing only our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion. Yet, because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality, we mostly seek to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity. To our children we say, "Don't talk back to me, I'm your parent." To our spouse we give the message, "Let's live and let live. If you criticize me, I'll be a bitch to live with, and you'll regret it." To their families and the world the elderly give the message, "I am old and fragile. If you challenge me I may die or at least you will bear upon your head the responsibility of making my last days on earth miserable." To our employees we communicate, "If you are bold enough to challenge me at all, you had best do so very circumspectly indeed or else you'll find yourself looking for another job."

The tendency to avoid challenges is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature. But calling it natural does not mean it is essential or beneficial or unchangeable behavior. It is also natural to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth. Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until the unnatural becomes itself a second nature. Indeed, all self-discipline might be defined as teaching ourselves to do the unnatural. Another characteristic of human nature--perhaps the one that makes us most human--is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature.

...Openness in psychotherapy is particularly encouraged by (or demanded, depending on your point of view) by the technique of "free asssociation." When this technique is used the patient is told: "Put into words whatever comes into your mind, no matter how seemingly insignificant or embarrassing or painful or meaningless. If there is more than one thing in your mind at the same time, then you are to choose to speak that thing about which you are most reluctant to speak." It's easier said than done. Nonetheless, those who work at it conscientiously usually make swift progress. But some are so resistant to challenge that they simply pretend to free-associate. They talk volubly enough about this or that, but they leave out the crucial details. A woman may speak for an hour about unpleasant childhood experiences but neglect to mention that her husband confronted her in the morning with the fact that she had overdrawn their bank account by a thousand dollars. Such patients attempt to transform the pyschotherapeutic hour into a kind of press conference. At best they are wasting time in their effort to avoid challenge, and usually they are indulging in a subtle form of lying.

For individuals and organizations to be open to challenge, it is necessary that their maps of reality be truly open for inspection by the public. More than press conferences are required. The third thing that a life of total dedication to the truth means, therefore, is a life of total honesty. It means a continuous and never-ending process of self-monitoring to assure that our communications--not only the words that we say but also the way we say them--invariably reflect as accurately as humanly possible the truth or reality as we know it.

Such honesty does not come painlessly. The reason people lie is to avoid the pain of challenge and its consequences. President Nixon's lying about Watergate was no more sophisticated or different in kind from that of a four-year-old who lies to his or her mother about how the lamp happened to fall off the table and get broken. Insofar as the nature of the challenge is legitimate (and it usually is), lying is an attempt to circumvent legitimate suffering and hence is productive of mental illness.

Next: Find out why people are not listening to you.





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