I originally wrote this blog post on a night when I counselled my friends to stop counting the deaths that occured every second while they were unable to stop them. I prefaced my advice by telling them I understood that they wouldn't have wanted to hear any comfort that could be destroyed by the truth... So I wouldn't bother with empty promises that it would all be okay. I set out to offer a reassurance that would not be destroyed by the truth, because it was the truth. That truth is laid out in A Different Prisoner's Dilemma, and my friends may not have taken me seriously if not for the fact that I had established a trust with them. I wrote this post about the nature and the standards of that kind of trust. I post it here in order to be more accessible to the rationalist community.
If your aim is to believe the truth, if you believe that anything that can be destroyed by the truth should be, then all illusion, even comforting illusion, is your enemy.
However, when we as human beings encounter things that are painful to us, when we are disappointed or heartbroken, those who care about our feelings (generally including ourselves) will have to fight not to reach for anything that makes the sting a little less painful.
You're crying and inconsolable because your boyfriend dumped you. The best friend you called in order to have someone to talk to about it wants to tell you it'll all be okay. That he'll be back next week, just you wait. Or he was a real jerk and he was never worth your time to begin with. Anything that will let you stop crying, or make it a little easier to get through the day. She wants you to feel better, because she cares about you. That's why she's the one you called.
But if your now-ex-boyfriend was really a nice person, and you wanted it to work out but for whatever reason of life circumstances or incompatible goals or different religions or whatever it was it just wasn't working and it's gone now... Believing anything else, even if it's just to ease the pain, is an illusion. Believing that he'll come back or you could still make it work if that isn't the case can also hurt you all over again next week.
If you know this, and your friend knows this, and she remembers and notices the flicker of wrongness on her conscience when she thinks about telling you your ex boyfriend was a jerk, then although she might want to say all these things to comfort you, she won't. Maybe she'll invite you to go out and have ice cream and watch a movie marathon, or let you sit on her couch and cry on her shoulder for a few hours to help comfort you instead.
That's the kind of friend I want to have. Someone I can trust to only give me genuine reasons to feel better when I'm feeling miserable. Someone whose words I don't have to comb and double-check for comforting lies, or at least not as vigilantly, because I know they do that themselves. It's also the kind of friend I want to be, for other people.
However, many people who have established a belief that it's right to comfort a miserable person, and it's right to be patient and tolerant, and don't see a problem with it if they have to tell a half-truth to do that.
The most insidious comforting lie I've encountered in my life is "no, really, it's fine" in its vast plethora of different variations. And particularly, I have encountered a whole lot of "you aren't bothering me" repeated as a comfortable lie. A lie that lulls me gradually back into comfort... But there's a phrase for that kind of comfort. It's called a False Sense of Security. Emphasis on false.
So I keep behaving the same way, and I try to ignore the niggling doubt that arises in the back of my mind. It wouldn't be right to doubt the honesty of my friend, right? We're friends. I trust them. That's a big part of what friendship is. And down the line, that trust blows up in my face. Suddenly someone is screaming at me. There's a list of flaws and mistakes going back months that had never before been admitted to be offenses. And all too often, it ends the friendship entirely. Someone I cared about was polite about it, and polite about it, and polite about it until they couldn't be polite anymore, and all the stored-up ugliness is thrown back in my face all at once. It hurts, but there's a certain element of solace, a little tiny ring of satisfaction, buried in the pain, as some of the tension I've noticed over the weeks, little moments in which I was confused, unanswered questions that go, "If that wasn't offense, what was it?" resolve into a coherent model of the past.
If I had known... I could have done something about it. Would have assigned a higher priority to doing something about it.
This has happened to me personally so many times that sampling error and human trauma have kicked in. I intuitively expect that people who want to be my friends are lying to me so that I will feel better, are hiding the ways that my habits annoy them. In particular, the annoying habit of asking whether I am annoying them. Because that itch at the back of my mind has become nearly constant. The cycle self-perpetuates as people who mistake it for a one time fit of anxiety at first and give me their sincere reassurances are gradually worn down by the repetition, and they don't tell me they're running out of patience (because that would obviously trigger another mess of anxiety that they might be asked to help clean up)... until it's too late.
It is the phenomena of comforting lies that has wounded me. It is the lack of acceptance in society in general of the idea that comforting someone isn't always the most important thing, and if you let it become an excuse for dishonesty, you may be doing someone harm in the long run, especially if it works and they believe you.
My internal model of the world at this point is that, if someone has a problem with something I'm doing, especially if it's a small problem, the chance that they will respond by telling me that they have a problem with something I'm doing is waaaaay under 50/50. Likelier responses are saying nothing at all, changing the subject, or turning more of their attention to something else and waiting for me to go away on my own.
But when a friend of mine gets distracted from a text message conversation by talking to somebody else, they also say nothing at all. If someone honestly forgets what we were talking about, or just has something else they really want to share, they also change the subject. If they are distracted by a video game or even if they just don't realize I expect an answer, they also turn more of their attention to something else, and it doesn't mean they're waiting for me to go away on my own.
But I notice the correlation. I become anxious. Am I bothering this person? Do they want me to go away? Should I ask? But if I'm already making them uncomfortable, surely the question would be even more annoying... Especially if they have to deal with it every day.
I'm pretty good at reading body language, but I also know that my fear of being rejected (again) skews my judgement.
I want to have friends I don't need to second-guess. They're rare, in my experience, but there are people out there who are committed enough to truth that they feel a tickle in their conscience when they think about saying something to console someone else that isn't quite true, and won't lie in a situation in which they expect to be taken seriously unless they feel they really have to. They realize that untruth can be damaging even when the danger isn't obvious or immediate. They realize that a comforting illusion is still an illusion.
It is written that two rationalists cannot agree to disagree. Illusions are anathema to them, even if those illusions are composed of a best friend's cognitive biases. They know that even though it would be painful for someone they care about to have to confront their flaws, it is the only way to overcome them, and become stronger.
For this reason, it is important for someone who desires to become stronger to have honest friends. I have been making a concentrated effort to notice the signs when someone is deliberately not lying to me, even though the tension hurts them too. I have been making a point of reacting to this realization by bringing those people closer to me, and thanking them, and doing everything I can to convince them that regardless of what the rules of polite society dictate, I want the truth, and will cherish their willingness to protect it, even from the need to reassure me that everything is okay.