Some people love rules. I am not one of those people. If you give me something in black and white, I will whittle it down with questions and smudge the lines. I love nuance, and contradictions. I’m more interested in how people navigate competing truths than I am in declarations of The Way to live. Essentially, I’ve never evolved past the 2-year old refrains of “Why?” and “What if…?”
This does not make me very well suited to religion. Religion–that wonderful respite of common belief and shared practice. The ultimate creator of rules to live by and definitive explanations of the great mysteries: life, death, the origins of the universe. And, I notice, when people ask me about Meher Baba, one of the first things I often say is, “There aren’t really any rules. He didn’t institute rites and rituals. His message was pretty simple: ‘Love God. And to love God, love your fellow beings.'” That seems so individualized in practice that it hardly qualifies as a rule. So I can live with it comfortably and do my imperfect best.
But it isn’t exactly true that Baba didn’t set any ground rules for living a spiritual life. He said many things that, for you rule-followers out there, probably sound pretty black-and-white. One that sticks in my mind, because I struggle with what it means, is: Be Honest. And I especially struggle with reconciling how that directive jives with another of Baba’s orders: Be Cheerful. I mean, can we really be both?
If honesty meant only the ability and willingness to say what we think, I’d be in the clear. Those who know me would say that being direct is definitely not my issue–I am not conflict averse and would prefer things be out in the open than left to fester. I try to practice not being afraid of emotions like anger, fear and sadness. And I’m rarely inclined to be something other than what I am. Even Bhau Kalchuri, when my husband and I were just engaged, pulled him aside, looked at him sternly and said, in his most serious playful voice: “She cannot pretend.”
But (it will likely not surprise you to hear me say at this point in the essay), it’s not that simple. Honesty must include other loyalties and responsibilities we deeply feel, besides our own thoughts and moods. For example, honesty can’t mean saying what we think while ignoring the feelings of those we care about. This is dishonest toward our love for others. And honesty, I’m afraid, cannot mean staying in bed all day because we are tired, as this is dishonest towards our commitment to our jobs, families and other responsibilities. Honesty, it turns out, may be just as complex as we are.
When thinking about this topic, I looked for various things that Baba said about honesty, as I vaguely recall many stories and quotes over the years. And I came across this story that Eruch told: A lawyer came to Baba in distress. He said that he was absolutely dishonest, as his profession required him to lie to defend the guilty. He feared he would have to leave his job in order to follow Baba. But Baba said, “To follow me, you have not to give up anything. Begin to remember me from where you are, from what you are and how you are, because I cannot be excluded from any area, any vocation, anything. If there is such a thing as hell for barristers, then you will find me there.” And that is why I love Baba so much. He takes us exactly as we are and urges us to bring Him into every corner of our lives. Perhaps the answer to the question ‘what is honesty?’ embraces all of it–the moments we blurt out what we think, the moments we hold back and our struggle with the question.