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For the Week of November 2, 2015
by Rubel Shelly
I have occasion once or twice a year to read a classic piece of Russian literature called The Death of Ivan Ilych. If you haven’t read it, perhaps you owe it to yourself. Just don’t read it on a rainy, dark day when your spirits are low. It is a tragic piece from the pen of Leo Tolstoy about a man who dies in a conspiracy of lies, truth withheld, and demoralizing pretense.
The reason I was reading this piece was to lead yet another group of students through a discussion of the complex issues around informed consent in medical care. Or, to couch it more broadly still, we were going to discuss the issue of truth-telling and respect for human beings.
In case you don’t know the story, it is the fictional account of a man whose illness is clearly taking him to the grave. But his wife enters a conspiracy with his physician to keep the truth from him. They tell him, “Oh, you are looking better today” – when he clearly is not. They say, “The treatment is working” – when they know it is not. They pretend that he cannot know the obvious about himself.
So Ivan Ilych dies with great anger toward those who should have given him the greatest comfort. He felt alienated and alone when he most needed the assurance of closeness and love. He had to suffer without comfort from the physicians he needed to trust and the family whose love he craved.
Okay. Enough of the literature survey! Let’s turn to the reality of life as you and I must live it every day. Whether it is bad news from the doctor, rejection by a friend, or one’s fragile job status at work, truth is a fundamental right.
Maybe some don’t want to tell a painful truth for the sake of genuine compassion that recoils from causing upset and anguish of heart. That is fully understandable. But what happens when the truth does come? From a stranger? That they will discover you knew all along? Then the pain is even greater.
Truth-telling need not be confused with truth-dumping. There is a way to tell the truth that honors compassion and concern. Yet the ethical duty of giving me the truth to which I am entitled entails the risk that putting it in my possession will indeed cause pain. Just stand there. Or sit with me. Or walk through it with me. Ethics and compassion, truth and love – they should never be strangers.
Perhaps the bottom-line issue with telling the truth is always respect for the other person. The Golden Rule, after all, is about treating the other person as you would want them to treat you. Correct? So perhaps the question is not always whether but how to communicate the truth – lovingly, prayerfully, kindly. As Ivan Ilych realized, it is better to be loved in the context of painful truth than to be treated with such disrespect that no one can be trusted.
“Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37 NLT).