Societal Honesty: Do You Really Want to Know?

Some people will not tolerate emotional honesty in communication.  They would rather defend their dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others.  Therefore, having rationalized their phoniness into nobility, they settle for superficial relationships.  ~Author Unknown

According to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, “On March 15, the television show Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer focused on honesty in everyday life and asked Michael Lewis, PhD, to tell the truth about lying. “Socially acceptable lies form the glue of our society,” explains the researcher. Lewis believes that lying is a very common activity evident everywhere from presidential politics to international affairs. “In a single day, most of us lie a minimum of 25 times and by age 2 to 3 years, 70 percent of all children lie very well,” he says.”

Wow. Really? I generally consider myself an honest person. Being brought up in a Christian home, I was taught that “honesty is the best policy.” I learned the lesson that a lie only gave way to a punishment, normally of the “tanned backside” kind. I’m thankful that I was taught to be an honest, upright citizen, despite my childish willpower to hide the truth. But this blog post isn’t focused on lying about where-you-got-that-orange-Faygo-in-the-fridge-when-Mom-told-you-not-to-go-downtown {story for another time!}, this post is about one of the socially acceptable lies we tell each other every day.

“How are you doing today?” We all ask and answer this question numerous times each day. Whether it is in line at our favorite coffee shop, greeting co-workers in the office, talking to family members, or simply passing an acquaintance in the hall, more often than not, we answer with a lie or expect a short generalized reply. And, to tell the truth, do we really want to know? Are we really interested in the answer or do we expect the nondescript “Fine, thanks!” as we walk by? Are we a society of habitual liars? If we base our answer upon the University of Medicine/Dentistry, I guess we truly are.

Making it Personal

Over the past nine months, many people have asked me how I’ve been feeling. Maybe it’s just me, but 3x a week physical therapy generally means that you’re still in quite a bit of pain. Surgeries aren’t fun. Yesterday, my physical therapist said that I’m looking at six months before the intense pain starts to go away and a year until it becomes bearable. Lovely. Just what I wanted to hear.

I hate being negative. I loathe the defeated spirit that I constantly battle. I’m not perfect; I wrestle with post-surgery depression and the feelings that I’ll never again be able to lift my arm without pain. Unfortunately, my line of work generally requires heavy involvement from shoulders and I wonder if there will ever come a day when I go without my faithful Ibuprofen. I desperately want to play my piano, but know that I am not strong enough to play even a simple song without pain. All of these facts run wild inside my head when I try to figure out how to respond when asked how I’m feeling.

The Flip Side

Despite the pain, I’ve learned that “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” (Ben Franklin) I have come to realize that without the pain of recovery, there will be no strengthening. If I don’t push through the pain, the muscle soreness, the bone aches, I will never reach the level of mobility that I desire. Truly, no pain, no gain. Without struggle, no battle is won. I relish the recovery because I will be stronger when it is done. I will play my piano again, I will complete a work day without pain medicine, and I will be able to lift my arm with minimal pain. These things will happen… I just have to keep doing what I know is right, push through the pain, and focus on the finish line.

In the midst of all of the conflicting emotions of ground won and lost through physical therapy, I realize that I am actually quite blessed. I have a wonderful doctor and therapy team. I woke up this morning and got out of bed. My eyes see, my ears hear, and my mouth speaks. I have use of both my arms–my shoulder hurts, yes, but I have two working arms. My knees still work and my feet carry me where I need to go. I have a family that loves me, friends that support me, and a job that pays my bills. I breathe clean air, live in a city where people vacation, and love the man God made for me. 

So, I’ve decided that when someone asks me “How are you doing?”, I will answer, “I am blessed.” Now that, is being completely honest. 

“I asked God for strength that I might achieve. I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy. I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men. I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am, among all men, most richly blessed.” ~Author Unkown

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Sympathy vs. Empathy

I have often marvelled at the subtle difference between the words “sympathy” and “empathy” and their erroneous interchangeable usage in modern speech. Since I’ve been laid up with the flu for the past several days, my husband has been taking care of me by making sure I drink ungodly amounts of fluids, eat meals on a regular schedule, and rest, rest, and rest some more. During all of this “resting”, I have been ruminating on these two words.

According to my faithful 1959 Webster’s Dictionary, sympathy is: “An affinity, association, or relationship between things so that whatever affects one similarly affects the other or others; hence, a reaction or response brought about by such relationship.” Empathy is not listed. Evidently, in 1959, there was no clear distinction between the two words.

Further scrutiny of “empathy” yielded the following results: “empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, modeled on “sympathy.” The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica: Academic Edition) Interesting.

As I said in a previous post, I love to participate in community theatre. The best kind of acting is when the actor truly loses himself in the part he is playing–when he empathizes with the character because of past circumstances. To me, this definition of empathy is very applicable because I understand exactly what it means to “become” someone else for the stage. To you, this may not be an adequate representation of the word.

To be truly empathetic, an individual has to have experienced the loss, walked through the valley, spent the effort, or needed the cure just as much as the person with whom he is empathizing. Any other response is sympathy. Please make no assumption that I am claiming sympathy to be less than adequate for most situations, but I do believe that in some cases, the empathetic affirmation of “I’ve been there, I know what you are feeling.” makes a huge difference.

I cannot empathize with many trials that people face, but I can offer sympathy in the midst of the storm. I cannot give counsel to people that are walking through certain hardships, but I can sympathize and pray with them for resolution. I cannot truly understand how things can happen, but I can sympathetically lend my shoulder to friends in despair.

I can empathize with those who are facing the loss of a loved one. I can empathize with you who are facing the Giant of Cancer. I can tell you that I understand the fear of the doctor’s diagnosis and the outcome of his verdict. I do understand what it means to watch sickness ravage the body of a loved one. I know the pain of goodbye. I have experienced the bittersweet knowledge that my loved one is with my King. I have felt the overwhelming comfort of whispered empathy from those who have survived.

In this volitile age in which we live, we need more support. We need more people who “have been there” to stand up and say so. We need people willing to revisit the pain of the past to comfort another’s present. I need to be more sensitive to those around me. I need to offer empathy when I can and sympathy when all I can do is pray.

Unfortunately, my husband can now be empathetic to my flu…

Reader Response: Sympathy and Empathy, what say you?