Augustine Washington was 47 years old when he confronted his fifth child, George — who would grow up to the become the nation’s first president — about the destruction of a prized fruit tree at their property on the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia. The youngster hung his head to say, “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.” Old dad responded, “Noble boy, I would rather lose a thousand trees than have you tell a lie.” Good point.
Some dispute the veracity of the tale while others are comfortable with the hazy facts because of its virtue as a parable of truth over consequence. Indeed, the elder Washington showed both wisdom and restraint in valuing the lesson beyond the material. How better to teach that “honesty is the best policy” than to remember it when injured?
Still, truth, especially the kind that will bring pain to ourselves or others, is rarely an uncomplicated concept. We hold back to conceal our intentions or to protect the feelings of others. Like a child hiding from her brother his toy that she has broken, can we hope to make truth to disappear because we hide it? Or, is it still lurking – only awaiting discovery and release? Might we advance honest expression without the hurt? Or, should we come to accept that a bit of distress may be the best thing? No pain, no gain.
Could direct and uncomfortable conversation be the best path to the least unpleasantness? And if so, can we find a way to only say things we mean – not to only say mean things? How can we navigate the truth and manage hurt feelings at the same time? Compassion is not easily defined. And, it is not easily applied. Can too much be more hurtful than too little?