At first glance, the eighth commandment is aimed at preventing the telling of lies, both big whoppers and little white lies.
More basically, however, it is about living in the truth. It is about putting an end to the fear which leads to incomplete communication with other people. It's even about ending the lies and half-truths we tell ourselves so that we don't have to undergo change.
Psychiatrist Scott Peck sees "dedication to reality" as an essential tool for coming to a fuller realization of self. "The reason people lie is to avoid the pain of challenge and its consequences," Peck wrote (The Road Less Travelled, p. 56). "Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs" (p. 51).
St. Ignatius Loyola saw this principle as a key to holiness. He provided a framework for 40-day retreats where retreatants undergo a searing examination of their own lives in the light of the life of Christ.
Ignatius strongly advised an examination of conscience every evening as a way to keep us from fooling ourselves about who we are and what we're doing with our lives. Living in the truth means constantly confronting the light and the darkness in our own souls.
Our lives and our relationships with other people can go badly awry if we are not dedicated to reality. Interpersonal relationships are essentially about communication. Through speech, body language and the written word, we communicate more than ideas, emotions and descriptions of events. We communicate ourselves. Most basically, we communicate love.
Lies, secretiveness and other forms of devious communication are more than just playing with words. They represent a failure to love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: "Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships" (no. 2486).
Sometimes a whole culture can be built on lies or lack of honesty. The Soviet Empire was one such culture. The ultimate lie was that the communist state was the embodiment of the will of the people and that any institution which could not be made part of the inevitable fulfillment of total communism -- such as the Church -- was an enemy of the people, a dying vestige of the old regime.
This lie was exposed for what it was with Pope John Paul's 1979 visit to Poland when 13 million Poles turned out, despite discouragement from the government, to jubilantly welcome the pope. At that moment, it became abundantly clear that the communist rulers were a tiny minority with little support from the masses. Communism was exposed as a pack of lies with no moral or political legitimacy.
The culture of lies will always try to suppress the culture of truth. It will even declare "martial law" to protect its own power and ensure that it does not have to confront reality. Truth shines a light, exposing falsehood for the lame unreality which it is.
When communism finally collapsed, it was almost laughable. No one would stand up to defend the system and its corrupt rulers. They just fell by the wayside.
But it has not been so easy for those societies to be reconstructed. Entire generations had been raised in a culture of repression, suspicion, ideology and mistrust. An open society can only be built on foundation of morality and honesty. If people don't trust each other, if there is not a widespread "dedication to reality," genuine dialogue cannot occur.
In the West, democratic institutions, a free press, and a commitment to truth and academic freedom in the universities have preserved us from the worst of the repression and lies which have flourished in so many dictatorships.
But despite constitutional guarantees of these freedoms, they can only exist when those charged with protecting them maintain a commitment to truth and openness. If those people make truth secondary to ideologies or special interests, freedom will be doomed. Our best defence for freedom is not the Constitution but the moral integrity of each person.
Even in free societies, there are many institutions and families where a dedication to unreality flourishes. The Constitution has not and cannot save people from getting stuck in a culture of addictive behaviour and co-dependency.
The only thing which can save us is a rigourous dedication to reality, whatever the cost. Sometimes the truth is painful. But it is never more painful than a lifetime of compromising one's integrity by refusing to challenge a pervasive fog of unreality.
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