Saturday, March 5, 2011

Telling unwelcome truths

I grew up as the eldest of five children - a fact that's had a major impact on the way I approach life.

Like many first borns, I have a tendency to take life a little too seriously, to worry more than I should and to try to control things. In particular, I'm inclined to want to intervene when I see someone I care about making mistakes that are likely to have serious negative consequences for themselves or others.

The difficulty is that very often such interventions aren't appreciated by the intended beneficiaries of my wisdom and advice. Most people prefer to make their own mistakes and learn things the hard way it seems. Go figure.

The question I've been pondering lately is whether I nevertheless have a moral or ethical obligation to tell unwelcome truths in some circumstances? It's not an easy question. When someone would clearly prefer not to know something, who am I to force them to know it? On the other hand, isn't it nearly always better to help them see the risks they're taking as soon as possible?

Perhaps, the key is to examine my own motives. Why do I feel a need to tell the truth? Is it really to protect the person I care about, or is something else at play? Am I motivated by genuine concern for their well-being, or by some desire to be right or to exert control over them or their situation?  On the other hand, when I'm inclined to avoid saying what I believe, am I really choosing to respect the person's right to make unfortunate choices or simply avoiding the discomfort that comes with being the bearer of bad news?

The reality is there's a substantial risk unwelcome truths won't be accepted or believed even if I choose to tell them. After all, we human beings have an amazing capacity to cling to illusions when we want to. But is expecting my interventions to be rejected reason enough to remain silent?

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