To Tell the Truth


My mother, Vivian Baxter, warned me often not to believe that people really want the truth when they ask, “How are you?” She said that question was asked around the world in thousands of languages and most people knew that it is simply a conversation starter. No one really expects to be answered, or even wants to know “Well my knees feel like they are broken, and my back hurts so bad I could fall down and cry.” A response like that would be a conversation stopped. It would end before it could begin. So, we all say, “Fine, thank you, and you?”

I believe in that way we learn to give and receive social lies. We look at friends who have lost dangerous amounts of weight or who have added ungainly pounds and say, “You’re looking good.” Everybody knows the statement is a blatant lie but, we all swallow the untruth in part to keep the peace in part because we do not wish to deal with the truth. I wish we could stop the little lies. I don’t mean that one has to be brutally frank. I don’t believe that we should be brutal about anything, however, it is wonderfully liberating to be honest. One does not have to tell all that one knows, but we should be careful what we do say is the truth.

Let us bravely say to our young woman, “That raggedy hairstyle may be trendy, but it is also unattractive. It is not doing anything for you.” And let us say to our young men, “Your shirttail hanging out from under your jacket does not make you look cool, it just makes you look unkempt and uncared for.” Some Hollywood fashion police decided recently that appearing in wrinkled clothes with half-shaven faces was sexy because it made men look as if they had just arisen. The fashionistas were both right and wrong. The disheveled look does make the person appear to have just gotten out of bed, but they are also wrong because that look is not sexy, it is just tacky.

The nose, nipple, and tongue rings are the possession of the very young who are experimenting. While I don’t like them, they don’t bother me much because I know that most of the youth will grow older and will join the social sets in which they work and live. The rings will be discarded and the young people will pray that the holes heal over so that they will not have to explain to their own teenagers why the holes were put there in the first place.

Let’s tell the truth to the people. When people ask, “How are you,” have the nerve sometimes to answer truthfully. You must know, however, that people will start avoiding you because they too have knees that pain them and heads which hurt and they don’t want to know about yours. But think of it this way, if people avoid you, you will have more time to meditate and do fine research on a cure for whatever truly afflicts you.        

From “Letter to My Daughter” by Maya Angelou

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