When I write about my experience of depression or give a talk about my book – a memoir of depression – people quite often thank me for my bravery in being so honest. As grateful as I am, I always think how odd it is that the word honest has come to mean being brave rather than truthful and sincere.
I know it’s partly to do with the stigma surrounding depressive illness and its association with weakness, (even in this day and age; which is shameful) that makes people terrified about admitting to it, particularly in a culture that worships success and confidence but is talking about an illness such as cancer brave? I don’t think so. It’s honest – although I entirely respect anybody who prefers to maintain their privacy. A dear friend who was dying of terminal cancer would go into a spin of rage if anybody called her brave. “I’m not brave,” she said, “I’m coping with an illness.”
The problem, I think, is that we have come to associate honesty with laying ourselves open to vulnerability, and its close cousin, embarrassment. The irony is that if we are honest about our frailties and vulnerabilities, we have nothing left to hide. It’s difficult for somebody to resort to criticism or sarcasm if you’re saying, yup, that’s me; good and bad, so make of it what you will. If there are no barriers, they’re left punching into thin air or playing hide-and-seek with non-existent skeletons, which, let’s face it, really is embarrassing.
My honesty sometimes drives my daughter mad. “I’ve got nothing to rebel against,” she wails. Mind you, as a small child, she was devastatingly honest (and still is). If she misbehaved and I suggested we have a little chat, she’d sit patiently for a while and then say, “Is our little chat over now? You’ve said the same thing five times.”
The truth, of course, is not always welcome although to be honest (there’s that word again) I’d far rather somebody told me I was behaving like an idiot, so I could do something about it, than see them withdraw behind a chilly politeness that leaves me confused and bewildered, wondering what on earth I’d done. I see it as the emotional equivalent of somebody failing to tell me I have spinach in my teeth. You know the one; you’re wandering around being cheerful and smiley until you catch sight of yourself in a mirror, and want to dive into the nearest hole.
There is such a thing as false honesty, which is simply criticism dressed up as empathy. “I don’t mean to be rude but …” Well, buddy, if you don’t mean it, don’t say it. It’s not merely dishonest, it’s dressing yourself up as the good guy when, really, you’re just plain mean. Then there’s that little word, “but”. Every time I hear it, following an assertion, I know it’s time to duck the punch. “I love you but ….” Then there’s the classic, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Oh, puh-lease, just be honest and say you want to make a clean break.
Honesty, of course, starts with the self. It is all too easy to lie to ourselves, because it’s less painful than facing up to our flaws, but if we can work through that pain (and it is painful) we might reach the far shores of emotional freedom.
Self-awareness is also about humility and before anybody shrinks with horror at the word, humility is not the same as humiliation and nor does it means abasing ourselves. It is more a lack of false pride or losing the pretence that we are greater than we are; a pretence that leaves so many of us in a state of anxiety and fear. It’s that whisper in the dark in the small hours of the morning, telling us that we are going to be “found out”. Found out for what; for being human?
One of my favourite quotes (I admit, I collect them because they get me through the dark and sometimes lonely hours) is from Thomas Merton. “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real”. Merton was a poet, mystic and writer who, after a wildly misspent youth, eventually became a monk.
I am not suggesting that we all have to take Holy Orders in order to appreciate the difference between artifice and reality but, really, who would you rather have a conversation with? The woman cloaked in shiny confidence and immaculate grooming (which always makes me a little nervous about banging my head against her armour) or the woman who is real, as in open and warm, and laughs about her own shortcomings.
Real conversation is such a relief after the stilted frigidity of small talk, at which, I confess I am extraordinarily bad, partly because my boredom threshold is so low and because I prefer to hear about the messy parts of being human rather than weather reports, property values or, god forbid, where little Johnny goes to school.
Anyway, should you happen to see me and I have spinach in my teeth, do please tell me.