Because I Care ~ HYPOCRISY

WE LIVE IN A WORLD where truth is not greatly valued, and it is sometimes dangerous to express our feelings openly. From our infancy, we are taught to dissemble and wear masks; it is often a matter of survival to do so.

Those who don’t follow what tradition has decreed to be the ‘norm’ are branded ‘non-conformist,’ ‘eccentric,’ ‘weird,’ ‘crazy,’ etc.; the norm is seldom questioned. If we were bold enough to question it, however, we would probably find that many of the standards upon which it is based are laughable, moth-eaten, dried-up and obsolete, just like many of the laws that have come down to us from the past.

Once, after a long journey from Singapore, I arrived at the bus-station of a town in Malaysia and, while waiting for someone to pick me up, a young woman came up to me and asked if I were a Buddhist. I told her that, in order to answer her, she would first have to tell me what she understood by the term ‘Buddhist,’ as it might be different from my understanding of it. She said she didn’t know much about Buddhism, so couldn’t really tell me. However, it was an opening that led to other things. She went on to tell me that her father— who she’d loved dearly— had recently died, and she was very distressed by this, and, far from finding solace in anyone, had lost her faith in humanity; she complained that many people were hypocrites. At this, I had a flash of insight, and interrupted her, saying: "Yes, we are, aren’t we?" and explained that we are all hypocrites at times— not because we want to be or try to be, but just because it is part of the condition of unenlightened life.

Just then, my ride came, and I went off. But I met this young woman again on several occasions, and explained a little more to her in a way she could understand, thus putting her mind more at ease. Meeting her at the bus-station was an auspicious beginning of what was to be an overall good trip in Malaysia; it was not planned or predestined, but neither do I consider it an accident, because, as I have explained elsewhere in this book, there are no accidents— things that happen just by themselves; rather, things happen as the result of causes ripening together at certain points in time; all things have causes— countless causes— and are therefore not accidents.

We often say things, but do not act accordingly, and sometimes even do the opposite. We smile and are polite to people we don’t like, but behind their backs we snarl and curse. A mother might say to her child: "If that’s Mrs. So-and-so at the door, tell her I’m not at home." Thus, as children, we are given examples of how to deceive and cheat. Is it surprising that we become hypocrites? It is the way society is constituted; but perhaps it could not function without a certain amount of hypocrisy— after all, this is often what diplomacy is all about, is it not? We can tell lies, at times, merely by not telling the truth; they may not be direct lies, but, not being the truth, they are still lies, nevertheless.

Thailand is famous for the politeness of its people, and visitors are impressed by this, not realizing it is a cultural thing, and is often— but not always, of course— no more than a facade, a veneer that doesn’t run very deep. It is like the cleanliness of Singapore, which I have discussed elsewhere in this book. Appearances are of primary importance to the Thais, and must be preserved at all costs; honesty and honor are not so treasured. Needless to say, this is fertile soil for hypocrisy, and I’ve always thought it strange how, in a country where beautiful temples are common, and monks in saffron robes are to be seen everywhere, there is so much corruption and low forms of living. Offend a Thai, and he will probably smile as if nothing’s happened; he will display no hurt, but don’t think that is the end of it, for he might remember and hold a grudge for years. Not only have I heard of this from others, but seen it myself. I’ve also observed Thai air-hostesses serving their passengers very politely and decorously, but with grimaces on their faces as they turn away. Thais aren’t unique in this, of course; it seems to be universal; but some are more skilled at disguising it than others. Westerners, in general, are rather brusque and to the point, and while this can be somewhat discomforting at times, it has the redeeming quality of leaving less doubt as to where they stand, though it, too, cannot be taken as a sure sign of sincerity.

Our world, it seems, is not yet ready for straightforwardness and honesty; such qualities are too stark and blunt for it, and must be diluted. If we were always honest with each other, we would constantly be at war, for we are immature and crave sweet words; truth is often the last thing we want. While residing in the Refugee Camp at Bataan, Philippines, I grew tired of the theft of refugees’ mail from/in the Camp post-office; it was so common that it must have been an organized racket, involving, at times, many thousands of dollars, apart from the loss of important documents and information that people were anxiously awaiting and in need of. I denounced it at one of the weekly inter-agency meetings, and was later accused of ‘cultural insensitivity’ because I had dared to speak so openly about it, instead of in a veiled and ‘discreet’ way. My reaction to that— and I still feel the same way— was that if such things as mail-theft have anything to do with culture, then such ‘culture’ deserves to be exposed and vilified. Why should we tread with extreme care about people’s feelings when they don’t give a damn about the rights and feelings of others? If we expect others to consider our feelings, we must begin by considering the feelings of others, no?

I once heard a little story about an Australian who had been in Thailand a number of years and spoke fluent Thai. One day, he had hailed a cycle-rickshaw, and while being driven to his destination, someone asked the driver where he was going. Not realizing that his passenger could understand, the driver replied: "Oh, I’m just taking this hairy monkey where he wants to go". Upon reaching his destination, the man got down and walked away, at which the rickshaw-driver called out to him in broken English to pay his fare. In perfect Thai, the Australian responded: "But hairy monkeys don’t have money!" Embarrassed, the driver no longer insisted upon getting his fare.

We recognize and condemn hypocrisy in others, but it is not so easy to see and accept it in ourselves; we are experts in rationalizing things in ourselves that we condemn in others. And, when we finally have to admit that we ourselves have the same faults, we feel depressed and miserable; sometimes, the self-image that we have painstakingly constructed, like a pyramid of cards, collapses, and there seems to be nothing left. Unable to face the pain and despair of this, and the thought of the immense task of reconstruction— of accepting themselves as they are and starting all over again— some people give up and commit suicide.

If only we were not hypocritical about being so! If only we would honestly and fearlessly accept the existence in ourselves of faults and imperfections, as we accept physical diseases and handicaps, then we would be better able to come to grips with them and deal with them. If only we would accept the fact that we are not perfect and still have a long way to go; it would be much better for ourselves, and we would probably find that we would get along better with others, and learning from them would become much easier. If only we would stand back at times, and see ourselves from a distance, as others see us, and, instead of always taking ourselves seriously, see the comical side of our efforts to become other than we are; fanatics, especially, are so much in need of this.

We all have negative qualities and imperfections of character— why, we do not know, but it is definitely not because we want them, as they cause embarrassment and pain when we become aware of them in ourselves, as are things like stuttering, facial tics, bad-breath, body-odor and so on. We do not like them or want them, but they do not immediately go away because of that, and cling on tenaciously. It is the same with other people, too. Most of us want to be good; few of us really want to be bad, although some people cultivate ‘tough-and-mean’ images (out of insecurity and ignorance that they are already special people, just as they are). For example, if we heard someone say about us: "He’s a good man," we would probably feel pleased. But would we be happy to over-hear someone say about us: "He’s a bad man"? Of course, we should know ourselves well enough to be able to check what is said about us in the light of self-knowledge and thereby avoid being overcome and corrupted by flattery and praise, or depressed by criticism or blame. Self-knowledge helps us recognize and accept the limitations of others, too. Ironically, the very things that we criticize in others are often there in ourselves; maybe that’s how we recognize them in others in the first place. In order to avoid harmful and negative things, we must first know them as such, for if we don’t, we might easily find ourselves doing those same things.

To deal with our hypocrisy, some adjustment to our self-image must be made. Needless to say, this will involve time, effort, and some discomfort, but if honesty and truth are of any importance to us, we will not mind that so much, and regard it as a small price to pay for self-improvement. We will need all the help we can get, so should understand something of the nature of criticism, as it can be an invaluable tool, and save us much time and trouble.

Just as we cannot see our own face, but only a reflection of it in the mirror, so it is hard to see our own faults, as we have either been taught to regard them as not-faults or learned to justify them. Others can often see our faults clearer than we ourselves can.

Now, if we have a friend who cares enough about us to occasionally point out some negative quality in us for the sake of our self-improvement, we are very fortunate. We are more fortunate still if we can accept his/her advice in the spirit in which it is given, without getting upset or feeling hurt. Nor does well-meant advice and constructive criticism need to come from someone we know; a complete stranger might be a friend in his concern towards us, by warning us of some danger along the way ahead, from where he has just come, for example; it is not uncommon for motorists to flash their headlights at oncoming cars to warn of police speed-traps just up ahead, thereby enabling them to avoid them by slowing down. And, if someone were to say to you: "Excuse me, but you have something on your face"— per-haps from your breakfast— you would not immediately become sad or upset, but would automatically put your hand to your face in search of it; and, upon finding the food-fragment— if it were there— would then probably say: "Thanks for telling me; I didn’t know!" You would be grateful for advice about something that might otherwise cause you more embarrassment.

Even harsh criticism from enemies or unfriendly people can be dealt with and used constructively if we know how to view it. Such criticism is often meant to hurt, but will lose its power to do so if we examine it to see if it is true and really applies to us. If it is true— and our enemies do sometimes tell us the raw truth about ourselves, keeping nothing back, in their desire to hurt us, while our friends prefer not to tell us the truth at times, from fear of hurting or offending us— then we should think about it and see in what way it can be utilized for our self-improvement and eventual benefit; it may then be looked on as an unintended gift. If it is not true, it does not apply, and we might think that the critic needs to see an optician or something. In either case, there is no reason to get upset. If someone called you a monkey, you would not immediately grow a tail and start swinging around in the trees, would you?

Rules are made to be broken, and everyone knows that. If we all lived honestly and treated others fairly, we would need very few rules. Bob Dylan sang: "To live outside the law you must be honest"; rules are made for dishonest people, or for helping people become straight, and have no meaning otherwise. Of course, we are talking here about just and reasonable laws, which are made for the benefit and protection of the whole community, and not just for the elite few. So, although individual freedom might be somewhat curtailed, we probably would not mind this if it is clearly in the interests of all. A lawless society, where people did just whatever they felt like doing, regardless of the rights and feelings of others, would be quite undesirable, and we would soon cry out for police-protection and more laws against the violent, aggressive and unscrupulous elements in our midst. If we cannot or will not voluntarily restrain ourselves, someone else must restrain us. Is it not better to do it by choice, and from seeing the benefits of voluntary restraint?

To live responsibly and with restraint is the beginning of overcoming our negative traits and hypocrisy. And if/when others see us trying to restrain ourselves, they might begin to disregard our negative qualities as "Not important; it doesn’t matter," and might even be encouraged to follow our example. Many people depend on others to make the first move— like pioneers, as it were— as they themselves lack the courage and initiative to do so. Then, upon seeing that these ‘pioneers’— who were bold enough to venture into unmapped territory— have succeeded somewhat, they might overcome their hesitation and faint-heartedness, and follow. Are you brave enough to be different, and make the first move?

And, while avoiding deliberate hypocrisy, do not feel so bad when you are unintentionally hypocritical, because in this, you are not alone. We are this side of Enlightenment, remember, and hypocrisy is just one of many negative qualities we have in common with people all around us and all over the world. Don’t worry; we change and grow, and do not remain the same forever. And the more we understand, the more we change, and the more we grow.

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