This is topic #1 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. The 16 items on that list are described as ‘resolutions,’ but I’m not taking them in that way. I mean, I kind of am incidentally, in that these are all concepts that I believe are worth reaching for, and as a result of reading and thinking for this project, my efforts will be clearer. Maybe not much closer to an ideal, maybe a little closer, but never perfect, seeing as how I’m fully human.
The funny thing (to me) about this topic is that Maria Popova, the woman behind the site, focused her attention exclusively on a single essay by Adrienne Rich, published in a collection called On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. This is a collection of prose, not poetry, and it’s almost entirely addressing issues of feminism, the place of lesbians in that concern and in the larger world, political aspects of the feminist movement. The Brain Pickings page presented this quote by Rich, which is easily found everywhere:
An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
The post didn’t indicate which specific essay contained these words, so I started off trying to guess by reading chapter titles, and finally found the right one after reading ~70% of the book. To save you the time, in case you also want to read the essay, it’s titled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” (1975) [apparently available here in pdf!]. As the title suggests, the entire essay centers around lying, and Rich is harsh, as far as I’m concerned, beginning so many sentences with “The liar …” does this, feels that, does the other. Her definition of liar is stark — the moment you say anything that isn’t the bald truth, and no matter the reason, you are a liar. She means to be addressing the ways women have developed slippery ways, often passive ways, to explain things out of fear of partners, institutions, culture, but it’s hard to hold that in mind when you are yourself apparently a liar. Because who isn’t, by her definition? Even if you are lying to literally save your life, she says you are a liar. It’s a very good essay; I argued with it in places and then she’d win me over, and then she’d say something provocative and I’d bristle and then I’d see she was right.
She ends on a much softer note about lying and the honorable relationship, and I can totally get behind this:
It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.
I began to feel confused about the very concept of an “honorable” relationship, even as I generally think yeah, that’s a good thing. But it’s surely more than speaking only the bald truth — or at least most of the time wanting to do that, apparently. I understand her need, in 1975, to be speaking in such hard terms, and she wasn’t actually addressing all human close relationships. She was focused entirely and exclusively on relationships between women; but why doesn’t that apply to all relationships? An honorable relationship is an honorable relationship. There is surely a hierarchy (coming back to what I even mean by honorable in a minute); we just can’t have the same goals for our monthly relationship with the barista at Starbucks as we have with our partner, children, parents.
And so I return to my curiosity about the sole focus on this one 40-year-old essay that was written to be presented at a writer’s workshop in Oneonta, New York (and was later published in a pamphlet). It isn’t the responsibility of Maria Popova/Brain Pickings to present exhaustive thoughts on topics like this, of course, but it does make me curious. So I started thinking: more broadly, what is an honorable relationship? What does it mean to be honorable? Before I turned to dictionaries and other books, I just thought. Honorable means you keep your word. You don’t betray people, and you don’t tell others the things they have told you in confidence. You are honest, yes, but maybe it’s the search for honesty together, and support for each person individually, that makes one honorable. Whatever your relationship is with a person, you are reliable in that way. But how is this different from just being a good person? Is honorable synonymous with good?
The definitions were of no help: “bringing or worthy of honor,” more or less, but the synonyms were helpful: honest, moral, ethical, principled, righteous, right-minded; decent, respectable, estimable, virtuous, good, upstanding, upright, worthy, noble, fair, just, truthful, trustworthy, law-abiding, reliable, reputable, creditable, dependable. And what do you know, the first listed synonym is honest. Maybe this ‘resolution’ should instead be “Cultivate honest relationships.”
Maybe Rich was right and my own definition reveals my difficulty with being fully honest. I found very little that talks about honorable relationships; I found a couple of websites that dealt with being an honorable person, and one focused immediately and heavily on honesty. Everything else I found was pointedly Christian, and I don’t have anything against it but I’m curious about this idea outside of dogma.
I can believe that an honorable relationship is one in which both people are honest with each other, but that is a difficult topic, “honest,” and not just because it’s hard for me. What does it mean to be honest? Bald unvarnished truth 24/7? Essentially, what I found focuses on being honest about who you are, about not pretending to be one thing while being another, about trying your best (and the relationship being strong enough to facilitate) to tell your own truth and not fear the outcome beyond experiencing a difficult interaction (-ish). I mean, you ought to be able to say how it is for you without fear of being physically or emotionally hurt, without being attacked for it or mocked or betrayed, and without being punished. How it is for you might be pretty awful for the other person, so there may be hard times afterwards, hard conversations, maybe even hard consequences, but they occur within a safe space. But is that an honorable relationship? That feels like such a narrow definition.
To cultivate an honorable relationship with very close friends, I expect these things of myself (red star indicates a place I have a lot of work to do):
- doing what I say I’ll do
- not betraying the person in any way, large or small
- apologizing (meaningfully) when I am wrong or have made a mistake
- not deceiving the other person (except maybe about a surprise party for them?), but especially about who I am and how I am feeling where they and important people and issues are concerned.*
That red asterisk, my hardest thing. Isn’t that funny? Because I seem to be extremely honest, willing to share things about myself that others keep hidden. But that’s not the source of my dishonesty. I find it very easy to be who I really am, usually. And yet there are exceptions, and they’re not good.
- When I am afraid. Well, that doesn’t seem so bad, right? People are not honest if they’re afraid, it might be a bad idea! One big problem for me is that I am overly vigilant about fear. And once I feel afraid, I can’t be honest any more. Since I too-easily feel afraid, there you go. Problem.
- This is a close corollary but has its own orbit: When I feel that a person isn’t trustworthy. I over-trust, and too quickly, and then when something happens it’s all over, that’s it. So if a person uses something I’ve said against me, well, no more trust! If someone is passive-aggressive toward me consistently, no more trust. And so I won’t reveal important things any more. If you really hurt me and fail to take responsibility — and especially if you then gaslight me about it? That’s it. Not only will be trust be gone, but our relationship will diminish pretty substantially.
Even though my darling friends don’t do those things, or do them so rarely that it’s incidental and immediately overlookable (because we are all real people), I know two people (probably three) with whom I believe I can be completely honest. Say whatever is true, reveal anything about myself, have conflict with them, and it’s always going to be OK. It’s that honorable relationship described by Rich, although I would never have characterized that as an “honorable” relationship. I might call it a true relationship, a fully honest relationship, a home, a safe space, and those relationships are more precious to me than I can say, especially since (aside from my kids) I’ve never had them until I moved here to Austin. [Coincidentally, these few relationships are with people I don’t have to wear my bra with. 😉 ] [Also coincidentally (not), this possibility really comes from the other people rather than from me, so I am grateful to them.]
Rich was right about this: we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us. And that’s not a slam against anyone at all! Our connections with each other live within and between the two of us in relationship, and that space can’t exist with others because it is of us. So the connection I feel with a person can’t be the same connection you feel, even though the person is the same to us both.
I don’t think I’m any nearer to understanding how to define or explain an “honorable relationship,” although replacing honorable with honest clarifies it. Maybe we all have to define this ourselves, and decide whether this specific construction is central to us. To me, the word honorable still focuses most heavily on keeping my word, holding secrets, and not betraying in any way, but after studying this, and thinking hard about Rich’s definition, I’ll loop honesty into the concept a little more pointedly. I want to be more readily honest with people in my close circle, I do, it isn’t that I want to be deceptive. My big challenge with this part of the equation is speaking up when something is wrong for me and it involves you in some way, or I fear you may have an aggressive reaction. YIKES. Not good not good danger Will Robinson. But the point of the topic, the ‘resolution’ is to CULTIVATE honorable relationships, and however I define that term, cultivating it is a process. I can undertake that process, try as hard as I can to be honestly and more fully myself with people I consider friends, feed relationships that have this potential and release my clasp on those that don’t. If I engage this process for a year, I will learn — to some degree — how to be more honest with people I love.
[that is so scary]
And now, off to #2: Resist absentminded busyness which centers on Kierkegaardian philosophies but does seem extraordinarily relevant to today’s non-stop FOMO online world.