When we hear the word honesty, we think of a concept that is fairly simple and straightforward. But actually honesty serves two distinct purposes in life. First, when someone is honest with someone else, it allows the two of them to share in an intersubjective, if not objective reality about a situation. This, in turn, allows the two of them to work and function more effectively in the situation. Second, honesty allows the second person, if he knows he is receiving the truth, to open himself up emotionally to the first person, thus creating a deeper emotional bond. The first situation leads to anchoring. One is weighted down to the floor without attaching to it. And people are juxtaposed without being emotionally merged. The second situation leads to grounding. One develops roots to attach to the ground. Here people deep-bond with one another as well as ground in one another.
Modern technological society, with all of its interchangeable machine parts, is very conducive to anchoring. To come together, people share factual truths with one another in order to help themselves keep their complex machines and their increasingly mechanized social groupings operating effectively. Factual truths are meant to help both individuals and groups trust one another which is the foundation of any successful group activity.
Emotional honesty is something different. It is an honesty that allows people to come together and deep bond and partially merge. This involves a greater vulnerability of oneself. A deeper opening up not only to the possibility of connection, but also to the possibility of hurt and even abandonment.
Now these two kinds of honesty don’t always complement each other. Should a husband tell his wife if she doesn’t look good in a new dress that she loves. Some people might say that being honest in this case is being brutally frank. That it disrupts the flow of emotional commitment by temporarily hurting the wife. But you say, being emotionally honest means being able to trust what a person says. The wife should appreciate that her husband loved her enough that he wanted to let her know when she was making what in his opinion was the wrong decision in buying the dress. Unfortunately, some spouses would rather be lied to than to confront that kind of truth.
And how does one deal with the situation where a parent manipulates a child’s school records in order to get him into a good college or university. On one level, the child can maintain his sense of trust that his parent loves him and is there for him. But this is done at the cost of the presentation of the factual truth to the external world. Certainly, this would have repercussions in the child’s ability to believe his parent in other factual situations, even when the child is to some extent complicit in the parent’s fabrications.
I would say that emotional truths and emotional honesty have been of greater importance in most more traditional societies while factual truths and factual honesty are of greater importance in modern technological society. In a vacuum and tension-pocket society, where there are few natural physical spaces to ground and deep-bond, people are much more likely to focus on the factually accurate rather than the emotionally sustainable in dealing with problems of honesty. Factual honesty may be very good for keeping a society running like a machine. But when a person is as numb as most people are today, it is hard for such a person to not only be emotionally honest with himself, to love himself, and to be committed to himself, but also to be able to emotionally bond with others.
In an ideal world, a person could have a balance between feeling grounded and feeling anchored. There would be a perfect balance between traditional components and modern technological components in one’s living environment. But time and life march on and such states of balance are like fleeting moments, if they ever really exist at all. Right now, for the most part, there are imbalances towards factual honesty and away from emotional honesty. Some people, as in the case of the parents who bend the facts of their child’s records so the child can get into a good school, overcompensate in their attempt to promote their emotional honesty over factual honesty leading to disastrous results. This is not the way to show emotional commitment, but if one is numb, perhaps it is an attempt to blast through the numbness with emotional expression to prove to oneself that he is being emotionally honest.
For most people today, the major cause for concern is an imbalance towards factual honesty. And this corresponds to the way that modern technological society is set up with its focus on anchoring rather than grounding. Anchoring does not promote the deep connections to the external world that grounding does. One can easily disconnect and break away from an anchor and float off in a vacuum. So the key is to try to get connected to more natural environments or patches of natural environments. These environments can act as templates for deeper bonding with other people and a healthier more balanced life where a large dose of emotional honesty can play a role.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow