The limits of truth-speaking

BlahblahBlahblah Shipmate
edited November 6 in Purgatory
I've been thinking today about some professional people in the news who had a terrible thing to do and a choice to make which will probably haunt them for the rest of their lives.

I don't wish to discuss the details given none of us know exactly what happened, probably none of us are professionals and there is nothing to be gained here from speculation

What I want to discuss is the limits of truth.

You know, beyond a miracle, that the person you are communicating with is going to die in the near future. Before their time. Assume for the sake of simplicity that they are entirely innocent of causing their predicament.

Do you say something like "sorry this is it, prepare to meet your maker"? Do you offer some words, some lies, to offer comfort at this terrible time?

Could you live with whatever choice you might make?

The only similar situation I have ever been in is when we said to an old and sick relative that they were not now going to leave hospital. That this was the end.

Which sounds callous now I wrote it down, but it was a long and painful illness and it seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

Comments

  • KwesiKwesi Shipmate
    The problem, as you describe it, is not about the limits of truth but the limits of truth-telling. In terms of what you discuss, Blahblah, ISTM that truth-telling should not take precedence over compassion.

    The issue raised for me is to what extent organisations are capable of accepting the truth. Recent experiences in church fora have persuaded me it's best to remain silent rather than to trouble Israel.
  • EliabEliab Shipmate, Purgatory Host
    Blahblah wrote: »
    You know, beyond a miracle, that the person you are communicating with is going to die in the near future. Before their time. Assume for the sake of simplicity that they are entirely innocent of causing their predicament.

    Do you say something like "sorry this is it, prepare to meet your maker"? Do you offer some words, some lies, to offer comfort at this terrible time?

    Are we assuming that they don't know that they are going to die, and that we, somehow, do? And are we assuming that we know this because of some professional relationship with them?

    If so, you follow the ethics of your professional body. That's the thing that they have a reasonable right to expect, so in all but the most extraordinary cases, that's what you, and they, have agreed in advance you will do.

    I suppose that in some extraordinary case it might be wrong to follow professional rules - and the matter may be so important that it's worth losing one's career over. In which case, follow your conscience and accept that it may cost you your professional status.

    If it's not a professional situation - the key question for me is, did they ask for the truth?

    If they asked, then tell them. They asked for it. You don't have to (and shouldn't) second guess them. If not, it's a more of a judgment call. You have to work out whether they want truth more than they want reassurance. Personally, I'd want truth, but not everyone is like me.

    Telling the truth would be my default response. Unless I knew for sure that they wanted comfort and not truth, I would not see truth-telling as wrong. Truth-telling does not require further justification. Lying, on the other hand, may not be always wrong, but is definitely does require justification. You can tell the truth when uncertain with a clear conscience, but I think that you need to be very sure of your ground to lie.




  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host
    If you were an emergency call operator phoned by someone in the middle of the Irish Sea having fallen off a ferry on a dark December evening, and you knew that they would almost certainly die before any help could reach them
    Do you say something like "sorry this is it, prepare to meet your maker"? Do you offer some words, some lies, to offer comfort at this terrible time?

    Could you live with whatever choice you might make?

    I’ve deliberately avoided referencing the RL situation I think Blahblah is referring to.
  • Raptor EyeRaptor Eye Shipmate
    edited November 6
    I'm all for telling the truth or saying nothing rather than telling lies, but istm that there will be a right time to go ahead, and the right words need to be chosen then. I tell terminally ill people that the time has come when they are clearly at the end of life, as long as this has been ascertained from the professionals and agreed with their families.

    For myself, I want the blunt honest truth: I'm no good at reading subtle hints, hit me with it. If it upsets me, I'll get over it.
  • EliabEliab Shipmate, Purgatory Host
    BroJames wrote: »
    If you were an emergency call operator phoned by someone in the middle of the Irish Sea having fallen off a ferry on a dark December evening, and you knew that they would almost certainly die before any help could reach them

    If they asked "will I be rescued?" wouldn't you have to say "the rescue services are looking for you and will do everything they can but it will be very difficult. I'm sorry that I can't promise anything other than that they will try" or words to that effect?

    Neither "yes" or "no" seems to me to be either truer, or more comforting, than that. "Yes" in particular would be such obvious BS that it would exactly as crushing to hope as "no", without even the limited comfort that the person might be able to draw from having been treated as a person of sufficient fortitude to be given the truth.

  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    edited November 6
    Medical staff are very cautious, about predicting outcomes because people can have amazing powers of recuperation. One useful tip I was given was that the sense of hearing is the last to go and so you should never have a pessimistic conversation near an unconscious person assuming that they can't hear you. They need to hear a positive message. But equally, it's not advised to tell someone who has been injured in an accident that they will be alright now because they might relax too much and then die. They should be encouraged to hold on because help is coming and to stay with you.

    In the same way people with severe dementia can have lucid moments of being aware of themselves and others. A colleague of mine visited a retired priest in this condition and was told that his mind had completely gone. He said the Lord's Prayer and he joined in word for word.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    It would depend entirely on the context: my relationship with the person, what we are communicating about, my role in their life, whether they have expressed a desire to know, whether I think it would be helpful for them to know, their mental state, whether they would even believe me. It's impossible to give a cut-and-dried answer. Are you talking specifically about if we were medical staff in a hospital situation where the person knows they are ill, or just any possible situation where I happen to have knowledge of a person's being about to die?

    To give a specific example where whether to speak 'the truth' was an issue in my personal experience, when I worked with dementia patients who were continually asking when/whether a relative was coming to visit them, thinking they were due to come soon when in fact the relative had just visited them and they'd forgotten, I would be focusing on alleviating the patient's distress, rather than telling them something that would distress them further, and they would then forget about and ask again. I would find something to distract them that they enjoyed - a song from their past that they loved and still knew, and sing with them, for instance.

    I can of course think of plenty of possible different situations where I could be with someone who is expecting a relative to visit them, and the relative has contacted me to say they won't be coming, and I would pass that information on to the person, even if it would upset them, because it would be helpful for them to know, and they would want to know. The wording of how I pass on this information would depend on all sorts of things.
  • BlahblahBlahblah Shipmate
    edited November 6
    Thanks yes. I know I said "professional" but I'm not sure it is just professionals who get put into this situation.

    A soldier might be ordered to retreat leaving civilians to their deaths. An ambulance crew might have to withdraw from a stuck patient because it is a danger to the crew.
    Eliab wrote: »
    BroJames wrote: »
    If you were an emergency call operator phoned by someone in the middle of the Irish Sea having fallen off a ferry on a dark December evening, and you knew that they would almost certainly die before any help could reach them

    If they asked "will I be rescued?" wouldn't you have to say "the rescue services are looking for you and will do everything they can but it will be very difficult. I'm sorry that I can't promise anything other than that they will try" or words to that effect?

    Neither "yes" or "no" seems to me to be either truer, or more comforting, than that. "Yes" in particular would be such obvious BS that it would exactly as crushing to hope as "no", without even the limited comfort that the person might be able to draw from having been treated as a person of sufficient fortitude to be given the truth.

    I suspect that most people would try to encourage someone to hold on and believe that the rescue services will get to them. Even if it is known that they won't.

    If someone is scared and panicking, I suppose it is sometimes a kindness to shield them from reality. I don't know that many would be able to process a qualified answer as you suggest.

    I'm also rather direct, I think it would take a lot of training to get me to tell someone reassuring lies.
  • BlahblahBlahblah Shipmate
    But then clearly sometimes such lies are necessary. I suspect in an airline incident, the priority must be on trying to keep passengers as calm as possible. Even if it means downplaying the chances of imminent death.
  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    edited November 6
    You don't have to make it into a lie vs truth situation. There's usually a third option--address their feelings or situation, respond to the emotion rather than the exact words. So someone with Alzheimer's who says "Why hasn't my daughter come to visit me?" doesn't need to be crushed every five minutes with the reminder, "She's dead." Just say, "I can tell you really love and miss her." Similar, you need not say "Rescue is five minutes away" or "Not coming"--you're not God, and you don't necessarily have the truth of the situation even if you think you do (since you're probably speaking based on the reports of others, who may themselves be wrong). Say, "We're doing all we can, hold on" and offer any other advice you can that pertains to what they themselves can do (e.g. "See if you can climb up a little higher on that roof").

    This is not a perfect fix-all way of handling the problem, but it's very often far better than just choosing between the truth/lie scenarios. And it gets your conscience out of the way.
  • Nicely put, LC. We used to say in therapy that truth is often a weapon, better mercy.
  • Good one!
  • BoogieBoogie Shipmate
    When my Mum had dementia we lived on her planet. If she said something we agreed with her.

    For example, she’d say things like ‘The potato pie is in the oven, we’ll have tea at five O’Clock” when she hadn’t been able to walk or make a cup of tea for four years. I’d reply “Excellent, I’m looking forward to it.”

    Or she’d say “Dad’s out, he’ll be back soon.” We’d agree and chat about him - he’d died six years before.

    Our strategy was, wherever possible, to live on her planet. Why do any different? She’d forgotten two seconds later.
  • BlahblahBlahblah Shipmate

    This is not a perfect fix-all way of handling the problem, but it's very often far better than just choosing between the truth/lie scenarios. And it gets your conscience out of the way.

    I can't imagine having any conscience issue with telling a lie in that situation.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I struggle a lot with saying something that is not factually true, not from conscience, but because it feels like I'm turning myself inside out. It doesn't come naturally to me at all. Apparently this is an autistic thing. However, from my observations of people in general, while a lot of people claim they never deliberately say anything untrue, most do without even realising it. And often it is the kinder or wiser thing to do, and not at all immoral. Also often not actually a lie, as a lie is a falsehood told with the intention to deceive. When you say something out of kindness, the intention isn't to deceive as such, but can be to provide solace and comfort, to avoid mental breakdown, to save someone from harm, etc. If you simply find a way out of answering directly, people can often know you are being evasive and hiding something.

    And of course there are many social situations where you are simply not expected to tell the literal, factual truth anyway (eg. the greeting 'How are you?'), so when you reply along social conventions, you are not deceiving people in the slightest, but simply following an etiquette code.

    When I was studying as a mature student for a healthcare-related degree, I would sometimes not turn up to lectures. The lecturers would demand an explanation, as I was expected to turn up. I explained in detail along the lines that the lectures I was missing were wasting my time, because the lecturer just gave a powerpoint that summarised the main points of what was in the preparatory reading we were supposed to have done, and didn't expand upon it at all. I pointed out that I always did the reading, and so I learnt nothing from the lectures - they were a pointless dumbing down for me, and furthermore the fluorescent lights were adversely affecting my health and so interfering with my ability to organise my studies and get done all that we needed to get done, so it was far more sensible and efficient for me to miss these lectures and do further reading instead, and just go to the lectures that were more useful.

    The lecturers didn't like this. They found it rude, though rudeness was not intended on my part. They wanted reasons, and so with great thoroughness, I gave them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Over time, I realised that the younger students who skipped lectures from hangovers and not being bothered would write polite emails apologising for their absence and saying they were unwell, and the lecturers appreciated this because they saw it as polite. I also realised the lecturers must surely realise that students were skipping lectures for less acceptable reasons, but that they actually would rather get an email saying (untruthfully) that the person was ill than that the person couldn't be bothered. I personally felt my own reasons were very valid and acceptable, and showed I was an intelligent and conscientious student, but I also realised that they sounded rude to the lecturers, so I started writing emails saying I was sorry I wasn't attending, but I was unwell. It felt really weird at first, like I was playing some stupid game that I didn't want to play, but I realised it was what the lecturers actually wanted. They didn't want to hear all my reasons, which they knew and didn't like. They would rather have an email saying I was sorry and I was ill, even if I was neither! So no deception was involved - just following the etiquette norm of the course I was doing.
  • Blahblah wrote: »

    This is not a perfect fix-all way of handling the problem, but it's very often far better than just choosing between the truth/lie scenarios. And it gets your conscience out of the way.

    I can't imagine having any conscience issue with telling a lie in that situation.

    Conscience is a strange thing. I've spent most of my life training myself not to say the easy lies that are so common--"Oh, darling, you look wonderful!" and so on--partly because of my faith, but partly because they always come back to bite me in the end ("Wait a minute, you said I was looking wonderful, and now you're getting all concerned about my health?").

    So to make things easier all around, I've trained myself to deflect questions where I'd have to lie to be civil. You know the kind of thing--"My, that certainly is a baby" when asked if Junior isn't the most gorgeous creature to crawl the earth (and you can't decide yourself if he most resembles a slug or a shambulating oyster).

    Drat, now I've told you all my secrets, and the next time I say "What an interesting post!" you'll all know it's code for "That was the stupidest thing I ever heard." :mrgreen:
  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    edited November 7
    fineline wrote: »
    I struggle a lot with saying something that is not factually true, not from conscience, but because it feels like I'm turning myself inside out. It doesn't come naturally to me at all. Apparently this is an autistic thing. However, from my observations of people in general, while a lot of people claim they never deliberately say anything untrue, most do without even realising it. And often it is the kinder or wiser thing to do, and not at all immoral. Also often not actually a lie, as a lie is a falsehood told with the intention to deceive. When you say something out of kindness, the intention isn't to deceive as such, but can be to provide solace and comfort, to avoid mental breakdown, to save someone from harm, etc. If you simply find a way out of answering directly, people can often know you are being evasive and hiding something.

    And of course there are many social situations where you are simply not expected to tell the literal, factual truth anyway (eg. the greeting 'How are you?'), so when you reply along social conventions, you are not deceiving people in the slightest, but simply following an etiquette code.

    When I was studying as a mature student for a healthcare-related degree, I would sometimes not turn up to lectures. The lecturers would demand an explanation, as I was expected to turn up. I explained in detail along the lines that the lectures I was missing were wasting my time, because the lecturer just gave a powerpoint that summarised the main points of what was in the preparatory reading we were supposed to have done, and didn't expand upon it at all. I pointed out that I always did the reading, and so I learnt nothing from the lectures - they were a pointless dumbing down for me, and furthermore the fluorescent lights were adversely affecting my health and so interfering with my ability to organise my studies and get done all that we needed to get done, so it was far more sensible and efficient for me to miss these lectures and do further reading instead, and just go to the lectures that were more useful.

    The lecturers didn't like this. They found it rude, though rudeness was not intended on my part. They wanted reasons, and so with great thoroughness, I gave them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Over time, I realised that the younger students who skipped lectures from hangovers and not being bothered would write polite emails apologising for their absence and saying they were unwell, and the lecturers appreciated this because they saw it as polite. I also realised the lecturers must surely realise that students were skipping lectures for less acceptable reasons, but that they actually would rather get an email saying (untruthfully) that the person was ill than that the person couldn't be bothered. I personally felt my own reasons were very valid and acceptable, and showed I was an intelligent and conscientious student, but I also realised that they sounded rude to the lecturers, so I started writing emails saying I was sorry I wasn't attending, but I was unwell. It felt really weird at first, like I was playing some stupid game that I didn't want to play, but I realised it was what the lecturers actually wanted. They didn't want to hear all my reasons, which they knew and didn't like. They would rather have an email saying I was sorry and I was ill, even if I was neither! So no deception was involved - just following the etiquette norm of the course I was doing.

    Forgive me if you know this already (and you probably do). The lecturers were upset because you told them the truth--that their personal lecture was a waste of your time--but all they heard was "X thinks I personally am a waste of time, and therefore I am not a valuable human being." If they could have listened past the emotionally-triggering statement to hear the rest of your explanation, they would have realized the blame did not lie with them personally. It lay with the instructional system that presupposed students could not and would not grasp anything from their reading--and therefore required the lecturers to repeat everything. But your lecturers are human and also probably neurotypical, and the minute they hit that emotional landmine (the words "you" and "waste of time" in the same sentence, no matter that they were not directly linked!)--well, their brains whited out. They couldn't take in the rest of the explanation, which would have relieved their minds. I expect they could not have reproduced your explanation verbally if asked, even five minutes later.

    That's why I eventually learnt to lead with statements that highlight my own weaknesses (even when largely assumed) so that my hearers (especially higher-ups) stop being emotionally defensive and get themselves into a more helpful mindset. As in, "Oh, professor X, I'm so sorry (not!) that my reaction to the light makes it hard for me to be in class (okay, it's true, but I'm not crying bitter tears about it!) and it's so great that we have this reading material so I can catch up on what I'm missing from your lectures" (thus framing the reading material as merely supplementary to the lectures, rather than the other way around). It's a bit manipulative, yes, but life is too short to wait for Professor X to climb off his high horse and acknowledge the justice in what I say straight out, however bluntly stated.

    Still, you would be totally justified to say that all this makes your head ache and is ridiculous (because it is and probably does).

  • So to make things easier all around, I've trained myself to deflect questions where I'd have to lie to be civil. You know the kind of thing--"My, that certainly is a baby" when asked if Junior isn't the most gorgeous creature to crawl the earth (and you can't decide yourself if he most resembles a slug or a shambulating oyster).

    Of course someone who stops and thinks about it will see right through this, but since people so infrequently stop and think about things, you'll get away with it the majority of the time. I used to tell my students stuff that was a mere observation but they took it as a compliment.

    "My those are yellow shoes!"
    "Thank you Mr. Thief!"

    "That's certainly a hat you have there!"
    "Thank you Mr. Thief!"
  • Yes indeed! Most useful.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Eliab wrote: »
    BroJames wrote: »
    If you were an emergency call operator phoned by someone in the middle of the Irish Sea having fallen off a ferry on a dark December evening, and you knew that they would almost certainly die before any help could reach them

    If they asked "will I be rescued?" wouldn't you have to say "the rescue services are looking for you and will do everything they can but it will be very difficult. I'm sorry that I can't promise anything other than that they will try" or words to that effect?

    And perhaps in that example say that to help locate, we're going to keep talking, what would you like to talk about.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    edited November 7
    For whatever reason, I have the opposite problem to Fineline. I have a tendency to lie to avoid confronting things, or just for fun, or to get an advantage, or for many other reasons. I suppose I'm far from alone there. It's usually my laziness I cover with lies. It served me very badly when I was gambling and so now I try not to lie, but I do anyway. I try to tell ridiculous lies, or to admit the lie as soon as I can, but I don't seem to be able to actually stop. I think I've come to the conclusion that it is just a part of my learned personality that I have to deal with.
  • Reading this thread put me in mind of a short film I once saw. Took some doing to find, 'cause I'd forgotten the name, but I finally tracked it down. Inspired by a true story about a pilot and an air traffic controller.

    "North Atlantic" (YouTube, 14:59 minutes, closed captioning available).

    Won a boatload of awards, many of which are listed at that link.

    It's poignant, and friendly, and wonderful.
  • Thanks for the share @Golden Key
    It was wonderful.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    Lamb Chopped, yes, most of them took it personally, though the course leader actually agreed with me, but they were also very inflexible, so no matter how I worded it (and yes, I did learn to word it differently over time, with the help of a mentor), they had rules where no one could miss lectures except in the case of illness or family emergency, and rules were rules. I had to go through disability services who fought on my behalf to let me have some reasonable accommodations.

    I had no problem with the ‘Sorry, I can’t attend today - I’m not well’ once I realised they preferred that and it was a quick, easy shorthand to let them know in a courteous way that I was breaking their rules without them having to face it directly or being obliged to scold me or feel disrespected. It was weird to me, but so are many social conventions. And it was a helpful experience in showing me different ways to look at ‘truth’ and social codes and expectations.
  • Strikes me as an issue with the quality of the lectures, they should emphatically not just be people reading a PowerPoint.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    Strikes me as an issue with the quality of the lectures, they should emphatically not just be people reading a PowerPoint.

    I agree, and also an issue with them not wanting to acknowledge that, and me having been in the awkward position of being on the course, with them in authority over me, as it were, and so having to conform to the extent that they would not throw me off the course, or make things difficult for me. Though this seems to be a position that can often happen in life.

    I should add, to be fair, that not all lectures were like this - this was more some of the introductory ones in the first year. The quality of lecturers and lectures varied quite a bit.

  • @fineline Just want to say I found what you wrote extremely helpful.
  • Introductory level classes tend to suck for just this reason (the repetitive "dumbed down" nature of so many, which is probably due to the fact that they haven't yet washed out all the students who don't have what it takes to make it much higher). And the same is true for stupid attendance rules and systems which make no distinction between someone who has valid reasons for being out and someone who was on a bender last night. I'm fighting this fight for the second year with my son's school, which has instituted a zero-tolerance once-size-fits-all attendance policy. It isn't flexible enough to cope with a student who has his wisdom teeth out in the same semester he has a family wedding out of state. Even when he has a near perfect grade point average. Give me a freaking break.

    Note: the administrators are apologetic, but the policy apparently came from On High (like, maybe state level) and we're all stuck with it. Grrrrrr.
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