I recently spent a rainy Sunday afternoon in my office, drinking coffee and rewatching an unusually respectful C-SPAN debate (what a thrilling way to start an article). In this debate, the topic of which was whether the United States should provide reparations to the descendants of slaves, famous British essayist Christopher Hitchens (RIP) had a sincere warning for those opponents of reparations which has stayed with me since I first heard it.
“Beware of making the Best the enemy of the Good.”
While Hitchens used the statement to argue against those who attempted to weaken his stance by introducing hyperbolic consequences (e.g. “Do you mean that every person with historically-wronged ancestors should immediately be provided restitution?”), it has particular relevance today for even the average person. I also believe it accurately characterizes much of the negative sentiment I’ve received since starting this project (and there has been much).
Take for example the following experience: A close friend recently admitted that he catches himself rolling his eyes each time he sees that I’ve posted a new article. Granted, he told me this as a way of acknowledging his own cognitive dissonance, brought about due to the tension he feels between showing support for a friend and his internal annoyance with the project (an honesty I now appreciate). However, since telling me this, I have continued to see signs that the negative sentiment he conceded to holding has not dissipated in spite of his recent confession.
At times, it seems as if he is actively trying to catch me in a lie. In fact, he often goes so far as to simply make the blanket accusation, “That’s a lie,” despite the fact that the statement in question actually is not one at all. Now if the intention behind this behavior was to be humorous or constructive (e.g. making sure I’m not slipping up), I wouldn’t think anything of it. But it certainly doesn’t seem that way; it actually feels fairly malicious.
This sort of response hasn’t been uncommon. Something about this project has caused quite a bit of negative sentiment in a non-trivial number of readers, yet it’s a bit unclear why. Perhaps the purposely judgmental nature of it feels somewhat threatening. Or maybe my public documentation of it comes off as self-absorbed. Regardless, in each of these cases, I can’t help but wonder what is going on below the surface. In particular, I find it curious that others seem so intent on weakening an undertaking as well-intentioned as I believe this one to be.
I recently told another close friend about this type of interaction, and I found his take on the motivations involved to be interesting: “Self-reflection is uncomfortable. The deeper you go, the more you uncover. The more you uncover, the more flaws you tend to find. Your own personal journey causes others to have a moment of self-reflection and, as the proprietor of this discomfort, people are lashing out at you and your argument in the hopes of invalidating you and returning their own emotional equilibrium.”
If this friend is correct (and I believe he is), then the subconscious belief of this sort of hopeful lie-catcher seems to be that if I can be caught in even a single lie, regardless of how mundane or insignificant, then the entire project can be called into question. This line of reasoning is not novel (I’ve responded to similar charges in past articles), but it is misdirected.
My project has always been about the pursuit of uncompromising honesty; it has never been about the guarantee that I would absolutely never tell a lie again. Like everyone else, I’ve lived decades of telling lies every single day, and I wholly expect to accidentally slip up in the future. Fortunately, that’s okay.
What’s less okay is our tendency as people to try to trivialize, invalidate, criticize, or distract from otherwise admirable or commendable endeavors by burdening them with the expectation of perfection. Take for example the battle against injustice. Most reasonable people would agree that equal human rights for all is a moral necessity. But imagine if one group in particular was unable to obtain equality at the same time as every other group. Would we really hold that the equality we achieved for all other groups was in any way less triumphant? Of course not. By no means would we admit that the pursuit for equality was finished, but we certainly shouldn’t downplay our momentous achievement because it wasn’t absolutely ideal.
Yet we do this in our day-to-day lives all the time. Take for example a story I’ve heard told by many friends with immigrant parents who, in response to their child bringing home a 90 on a test, ask what happened to the other 10 points. Or the startup executive who, despite successfully growing his company quarter over quarter, admonishes his overworked employees for not growing it as fast as their competition. In life, it is rare that everything can be put wholly and completely right. But if not all of it, can most of it? Can some it. Can any of it? For those of us who are perfectionists, who are unfamiliar with satisfaction, who live in a state of perpetual discontent, this lesson is particularly applicable:
We should be able to appreciate the good without lamenting its failure to be the best.
Which brings me back to Adventures in Honesty. The purpose of this project is to commit to a life without lying, and, in doing so, improve who I am as a person while causing those who follow to consider the negative impact of their falsehoods. Unfortunately, I will lie again in the future (maybe even to you). But again, that’s okay. The point isn’t that those of us who commit to making ourselves and our societies better are infallible. The point is that when we do make mistakes, we do our best to acknowledge, remedy, and endeavor to avoid those mistakes in the future. Any attempt to devalue this effort due to the occasional imperfection does not highlight a fault of the doer. Rather, it exposes a weakness of character in the one who aspires to judge.
So if in your pursuit of personal 0r societal betterment you come across this sort of hyperbolic attempt to undermine your efforts, just keep in mind what our friend Hitchens had to say: “When people begin to introduce the irrelevant, and the non-sequitur, and the generalization, you know you’re on to something.”