Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Truth or Consequences or What I Learned from Watching Downton Abbey

Image    “Did you have their best interests in mind?”


“Did you tell the truth?”

The office was filled with toys, small beanbag chairs, and children’s books. Were it not for the very adult desk and bookcase filled with psychotherapy and relationships texts, we could have been in a daycare center or kindergarten classroom.

This was, however, a very serious conversation. I was struggling with the recent loss of some friends, and my therapist (who happens to specialize in children) had just listened to my somewhat sesquipedalian story outlining the events leading to the loss.

“Yes,” I told her. “I was completely honest with them. That is why this hurts. I told the truth, and I had everyone’s best interest in mind.”

I left her office that day feeling much better about myself. She explained to me that any relationship runs its course. Some are long, others short, but they all end. She encouraged me to celebrate what made those relationships good when they were good, mourn for a brief while, then move on. Relationships will come and they will go.

She is right, of course. Relationships do come and go. Very few last a lifetime. And, sometimes they end in tears. I have been through enough friends, lovers, and acquaintances in my lifetime to know that it is the nature of life for people to pass into and out of our lives. But I knew that answer was not enough. In the course of being completely honest, I lost friends. That didn’t seem right to me.

Weeks later, I found myself examining the two questions about truth and intention. As a child, I was taught in sunday school to always tell the truth and to “do unto others…”

The truth part of the lessons seemed pretty black and white. Truth is truth. Anything else is a lie. But the do unto others part always seemed a little vague to me. It still does. It is simple on the surface, but in a given situation, just what do I want done unto me? And now, even telling the truth looks a lot more grey than black and white.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been watching old episodes of Downton Abbey, and have noticed a pattern among the family and some of the servants living in His Lordship’s manor. They don’t always tell the truth. There is a code among this class as they are presented on PBS. There are certain ways of interacting with each other, and with those of different classes. They have dress codes, expected manners…

Much of the code is superficial. Parts are designed to separate them from those of a lesser class. But part of the code also seems to include honesty. As I sit here thinking back, I cannot recall lies being told between them. Yet, I clearly remember them not telling the truth.

In the episode I watched last night, one of the servants was concerned about the well-being of another who had not been acting herself.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked.

Something was very much the matter. She had just come from the doctor who examined and drained fluid from a lump in her breast. She did not yet know what she was facing, and did not want anyone else to know of her situation until she had confirmation.

“Good night,” she said, ending the conversation.

She neither lied, nor told the truth.

Granted, she could have told the truth and would not have lost friends as a result, so her situation (aside from the fact that it was fictional) was very different from mine. Nonetheless, she showed great dignity in choosing not to answer.

My most recent loss of friends is not the only such loss I have encountered in the past few years. And in both cases, I told the truth. And, in both cases, I could have said “goodnight.”

A confidante suggested that it might be best to steer people towards an answer, rather than give them an answer. That is what the servant did. By saying “goodnight” a clear implication was sent that, indeed, something was wrong, but that it would not be discussed at that time.

Along with the revered golden rule, we bandy around the notion–usually attributed to the speaker’s mother–that if we have nothing good to say, we should say nothing at all.

This idea, too, seems flawed in its vagueness. What does “good” mean? Is it always “good” to speak the truth? Should we be only complimentary in our speech?

In giving our children hard fast rules about truth and goodness to live by, however well-intended, we run the risk of painting them an unrealistically black and white picture of a very gray world. Perhaps, instead of rules golden or otherwise, we should be asking them questions. What would you do in this situation? What might be the results of saying this or that? When might telling the truth be best substituted with a simple “good night”?

But I am forty-six. I am not a child. I should know better by now. And yet, I find myself surrounded by stuffed animals talking to a child therapist so that I can learn the lessons I failed to learn decades ago.

All this talk of honesty and lessons, rules and questions reminds me of the time I… er…



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Posed with a similar dilemma last year, I totally empathize. Put in front of a moral decision, I lost roommates and friends. All to protect the legacy of a woman’s land and her vision of how she wanted to leave that land after she was gone. Spark curiosity? I’ll tell more later.

Thank you for sharing this personal moment.

What do you think?