How can one be effectively honest with others who have suffered a tragedy and are in denial? How does one help them overcome this denial and pursue happiness realistically — that is, on the basis of a realistic view of their situation? Here is my answer.
Those who pride themselves on their honesty should also concern themselves with this principle: The effectiveness of honesty depends on a person’s willingness to face the truth, which may conflict with this person’s desires and provoke denial.
In such a case, how can one promote this willingness, despite this conflict? The answer to this question could prove useful to anyone who seeks to be effectively honest with people in denial. Ultimately, it could benefit these people, whose denial is contrary to their best interest. I go on the assumption that truth, or the conformity of thought to reality, is the sine qua non of vital efficacy. Health, pleasure, successful careers, and harmonious relationships require that we know the needs and capabilities of our nature, and the workings of the world. The absence of this knowledge leads to accidents, illness, suffering, failure, and death. Therefore, the first object of our desires should be truth, or the knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. Why then are people often unwilling to face it?
I believe there are two reasons for this unwillingness. Firstly, the desire to know the truth, which originates in the desire to live happily, spontaneously degenerates into the desire to be right, to avoid the insecurity and shame associated with error and ignorance, and also to avoid the effort to learn. Thus fear, pride, and laziness are obstacles to the pursuit of truth and happiness. People are unlikely to admit they are wrong when they are, unless they possess courage and humility. Whoever takes their good to heart should help them develop these virtues.
Secondly, the truth may be known from experience about a happy way of life. The desire to know the truth then turns into the desire to see the truth last. Mental inertia becomes the law, proportional to the force of attraction exerted on the mind by this happy way of life. Any upheaval that breaks the status quo is denied: “I cannot believe it; this cannot be happening.” Reality is deemed unreal because it no longer tallies with the desired truth. Denial can therefore be regarded as a deviant process that conforms facts to ideas, instead of the opposite. Reason is overthrown and emotions reign, as one strives to prove reality wrong to spare oneself the loss of a happy way of life and the pursuit of another, this loss and this pursuit being associated with grief, strain, and doubt, or even despair.
To help a person acknowledge an undesired truth about a radical change in reality, one has to couple honesty with wisdom to heighten this person’s awareness of the human capacity for adaptation. This capacity is best illustrated by the example of people who have suffered a terrible misfortune and progressively discovered a new outlook and a new happiness, more enlightened and satisfying than the old ones. In addition, one has to stimulate the will of this person, who is left with a formidable challenge: to start her or his life over. Lastly, this heightened awareness and this stimulated will may weaken at times, calling for reinforcement. All in all, against the unwillingness to face the truth, the effectiveness of honesty is always difficult and uncertain.