Sitting with my therapist and reflecting on the past 6 months, I came upon the realization that I'm just a regular guy. It might sound like a common realization, but to me it was anything but, and my therapist rightly observed this to be the potential beginnings of "real humility".
After putting a hold on my startup months before, I took some time to reevaluate things. It felt like a screeching halt from 90 mph. If I'm being honest, I could have given it more, but I wasn't ready. It was perhaps the first time I was made to face the extent of my abilities. I had always assumed that despite the small odds of success, such things would come naturally. But most difficult things do not come naturally, and you must try and try again.
There is an intricate relationship between humility and lies. In his seminole work, Ethics, Benedict de Spinoza describes many ethical states of mind. Of humility, he says "When the mind imagines its own lack of power, it is saddened by it... This sadness, accompanied by the idea of our own weakness is called humility." Spinoza actually thinks that sadness is a form of evil, but he concedes that it is useful in allowing us to correct course. In this way, there is a much greater sin than humility, and that is pride. He says that when a man "thinks more highly of himself than is just, it is called pride, and is a species of madness, because the man dreams, with open eyes, the he can do all those things which he achieves only in his imagination."
Pride is a mental distortion of reality. It is a lie. It is truly madness to believe we are capable of that which we have not done simply because we imagine it. And to actually attempt that which we imagine forces you to face fortune and reality. Like many, I grew up believing that I was special, but that was a lie. The word "special" is such an abstract idea that even evoking it seems like a mistruth. It's more of a feeling than a truth to proclaim that something is special. The truth is right before us in the works that we have done. It takes courage to stand before our actions and plainly admit the contents of our past. The truth is all there, all visible right there in reality. And even in the midst of great fame, the reality is there. In his Letters from a Stoic, Seneca notes that "EVERY DAY AND every hour reveal to us what a nothing we are, and remind us with some fresh evidence that we have forgotten our weakness; then, as we plan for eternity, they compel us to look over our shoulders at Death."
It is a tiny and insidious lie to say that we are special. And it is a declaration of war on reality to imagine something and to believe ourselves innately capable of it. It is the same thing that arguments are made of, the things that lead us to blindly defend ourselves because our actions do not stand tall enough on their own. When we tear down all of this scaffolding, we see the quiet and humble reality of ourselves. To do so is to allow ourselves to start again from a place of truth. It feels good because it is real. There is nothing to hide.
In Lying, Sam Harris makes the argument that actually there are very few situations in which lying is beneficial. One of the few exceptions may be in order to save your life. But even then, he makes a hard case for telling the truth. He writes that "'Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. Knowing that we told the truth in the past leaves us with nothing to keep track of. We can simply be ourselves in every moment." When we lie to ourselves, as with pride, we deny ourselves the power of truth and potential. Lying to others has even greater implications. When we lie explicitly, we create a shroud of reality which must be maintained in our memory. Lying burdens us with mistruths. Honestly unburdens us with reality.
Consider also the white lie. To tell a mistruth in order to be compassionate is perhaps exactly the opposite. Not telling someone something is robbing them of the opportunity to act on reality. I have always been struck by the example of hiding medical illness from family members, especially fatal illness like cancer. Movies like The Farewell depict this situation in detail. Hiding the truth is purely speculative. What right do we have to assume to know what is best for another human being? Perhaps that person would prefer to spend their final days doing something else. In Lying, Harris gives another compelling example in which a friend casually asks if Harris thinks he is overweight. He responds frankly that he doesn't think anybody would consider him seriously overweight, but that if he were his friend he would try to lose 25 pounds. His friend went on to lose 15 pounds over the summer, something he may not have considered if convention had led Harris to tell a white lie. If his friend reacted in anger, it could be easily argued that such a friend is not worth having. Why would you hold onto a relationship in which you must remain constantly guarded?
A stigma has evolved around telling people hard truths. Perhaps it is due to the obsession with personalities that has swept through the United States over the past 100 years and amplified through social media. We seem more interested in how we are seen and how we see ourselves than in the reality of what we have done. But you can't argue with reality. Whether it is to yourself or others, doing so is called lying. Lying causes endless pain and suffering to ourselves and those around us.