I have a confession: I like soap operas. Not all, but a couple. I’ve been following their story lines for years. At the end of almost every weekday, I indulge myself by watching the day’s episode online. It seems like a perfect mindless wasy to unwind. I jokingly tell friends, “Whatever’s going on in my life, it will pale in comparison to the drama these characters invoke in their lives.” I know it’s TV. I know it’s not real. Yet the philosopher in me is fascinated by how years of television can operate off of two basic axioms: (1) I can make so-and-so love me; and (2) it’s better if I don’t tell so-and-so the truth. I’m convinced that these two principles serve as the core for decades of dramatic storytelling.
The second axiom fascinates me because it so clearly contradicts the oft-cited biblical passage:
The truth shall set you free.
The context of this passage complicates this statement. Jesus is teaching the crowds in the temple. He’s talking about sin and death and his relationship to the world. People are perplexed as he continues explaining his relationship to “the Father.” Finally Jesus says, “And the one who sent me is with me; this one has not left me alone.” It is as if a cartoon light bulb is lit above the disciples’ heads, as the text notes that many believe now. Speaking to those believers, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)
As an educator committed to social transformation, I’m delighted in the way that Jesus connects teaching (his word) to community, knowledge and liberation. I read this passage and see that communities can come together around spiritual teachings and feel secure in their knowledge of God. I understand how intimacy with God can grant a sense of liberty.
But most of us simply pull this verse out of context: the truth shall set you free
Translation: “Don’t lie. It’s better that way.”
I want to think I’m aligned with this biblical principle. Nevertheless, I am one of many people who find themselves drawn to a particular scene from the movie, “A Few Good Men.” It’s a military court of law and Tom Cruise plays Lt. Daniel Kaffee, the lead counsel for the defense. Questioning Col. Nathan Jessup, played by the inimitable Jack Nicholson, Cruise’s character yells, “I want the truth!” Nicholson delivers the well-known line in response, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”
I’m often much more like Jack Nicholson than the gospel of John. That’s confession number two. And I don’t think I’m alone.
As someone who lives with depression, I have a tenuous relationship with the truth. I know that depression can make me believe things that aren’t factually true. Things like this: no one loves me; no one really knows me; no one sees who I really am. Depression can turn my deepest insecurities into facts that can overwhelm me to the point of emotional paralysis.
As a fairly functional depressive (and one who was closeted more often than not), I also know how to lie. I know how to work and teach and preach as if I’m okay. I know how to contain the tears and shivering to my private moments alone at night. I know how to fake it until I make it. I can do this for months, years even, before most people know how miserable I am. I don’t recommend it. I also know how exhausting and lonely that is.
But down deep, I’ve embraced Jack Nicholson’s approach more than Jesus’ words. I didn’t think people around me could handle my truth. I’ve believed that my colleagues and superiors wouldn’t respect me if they knew about my struggles and vulnerabilities. They would not hire me. They would not promote me. I’ve believed that people closest to me needed me to be strong and “together.” I’ve believed that my friends would not love me if they knew how sad I really was.
I told myself that this was the lesser of many evils because I never lied to myself. I knew how poorly I felt. I knew when I slid from something-I-can-manage to I-better-find-a-doctor-quickly. I thought my self-awareness was honesty. I’ve always told doctors what was going on.
I understand that this is a rarity. On the television show, the expert medical diagnostician Dr. Gregory House always says, “People always lie.” By this, he refers to the fact that patients do not tell the full truth about their lives and symptoms, thereby rendering it even more difficult for doctors to make an accurate diagnosis. Dr. House feels this so strongly that he insists that the doctors he supervises break into the homes of the patients in search of more information.
It’s an extreme position, but I suspect many doctors are trained like House. They are trained to believe that patients are not telling the whole story. They don’t say: “Everybody lies.” Rather sometimes doctors are trained to pay more attention to symptoms, than to what the patient says.
This won’t work with people who live with depressive conditions. We have to tell someone. We have to tell someone how we really feel and what’s happening, so that they can help us. Most of us cannot wait until someone else notices, or we’ll be far down a road from which some people don’t return.
Those of us who are reticent about telling the truth of our depressions may be as insecure as I can be. They may be wisely attuned to the stigma of mental health challenges and how prejudice can adversely affect one’s ability to make a living. Other people believe that acknowledgement of depression is tantamount to admitting defeat. I can understand that as well.
Some spiritual, philosophical and psychological systems believe in affirmations. They believe that we can tell ourselves things that are not true, things that we want to be true, things that we hold to be true – even when we don’t feel them. We do this in order to encourage ourselves to live into them. We do this to retrain our brains, minds and consciousnesses to conform to these ideas. I believe there is power in such a system. I believe there is power in learning to live into our highest, most godly selves.
But the power is lost when we do so at the risk of lying to ourselves, the people closest to us, or the people who could help us.
My truth is not usually pretty. On any given day, it could be: I’m unhappy; I didn’t sleep well; I lost my appetite three weeks ago; I’m not really sure if you love me; I miss my friends; and no, I don’t think if I try again tomorrow, it will be better.
These are the kinds of things I tend to keep to myself.
Each day I fight the Jack Nicholson in me in favor of Jesus’ words about truth and freedom. My closest friends are like Jesus’ disciples: they are my community; they can handle my truth; they hold my hands as we journey towards a land of liberty. They remind me that telling the truth is not just a biblical commandment I have to follow to get to a good place. Rather it’s one of the most powerful gifts I can give to myself, and those I love.
* * *