I recently finished reading The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult. It is about the sexual assault of Trixie Stone and the secrets and lies that are unveiled in her family as a result. The title is in reference to Dante’s Inferno–part 1 of the poem The Divine Comedy. If you didn’t have the pleasure of taking the class in college, I’ll give you the soundbite version. Dante’s Inferno describes nine realms of hell in which sins are rated in terms of how egregious they are. From least to worst, the sins in each realm are 1) limbo, 2) lust, 3) gluttony, 4) greed, 5) wrath, 6) heresy, 7) violence, 8) fraud, and 9) treachery.
In the novel mother, wife, and classics professor Laura Stone muses that perhaps there should be a 10th circle of hell with a sin even worse than betrayal: lying to oneself. For me, this is the most intriguing idea in the book. On the one hand, lying to ourselves seems so commonplace that it seems like it would be a minor offense, rather than something so treacherous that it that places you even deeper in hell than Lucifer in the ninth realm, half submerged in a frozen lake, suffering for eternity. But then again, it’s the people who lie to themselves about their intentions who can sleep at night even though they are causing millions of other people needless suffering. Like Putin, for example.
This theme of self-deception brings to mind another book I read recently–Dopamine Nation, by Anna Lembke. It’s about a psychiatrist’s work with people who suffer from addiction. This may seem totally unrelated to Dante’s Inferno, but hear me out. Lembke argues that the best way to overcome any addiction is through the 12 step model, with perhaps the most important step being radical honesty. Robert Brault said “every lie is two lies, the lie we tell others and the lie we tell ourselves to justify it.” That is an apt description of what it’s like to be in the midst of an addiction.
Ever since I read Dopamine Nation I’ve made a more concerted effort to encourage clients and myself to engage in more radical honesty. For example, my recent breakup has been a betrayal that comes only second to my first marriage, in which my husband asking if we could have an open marriage in response to my asking him what he thought about having a baby. It’s been very, very hard to deal with feelings of hatred, resentment, jealousy, and regret that have emerged since the breakup. I feel like I’ve become a completely different person, and not someone that I find very interesting. Which is why I haven’t written.
At the same time, when I talk to my therapist about the breakup, she repeatedly tells me that she thought I was the one who broke up with him. So how can I feel so betrayed if I’m the one who ended things? I mean, I guess they can both be true, but still. There has to be some self-deception of my part. Some unwillingness to see how I contributed to the demise of the relationship. Some unwillingness to take responsibility for how I have hurt him.
So I’ve been trying to be more honest with myself about the things I haven’t wanted to see. Trying to remove the log in my own eye rather than focus on what he has done to hurt me. It is painful stuff, let me tell you. The biggest problem I’m facing is that, while lying to ourselves may be letting ourselves off the hook for our sins, the problem with radical honesty is that we run the risk of blaming ourselves for things that aren’t in our control.
I said no when he asked me if I wanted to be in a relationship. My brother was living with me and I was barely holding myself together. I had no personal space in my own home, and even though I was barely able to feed myself, now I had to make sure my brother who just had open heart surgery had healthy meals. My performance at work was suffering as a result. I had to cut back on my hours, which meant less pay, even though I had another mouth to feed. I was not in the head space to be in a relationship. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. In moments where I tried to be radically honest, I told myself that maybe I didn’t say no often enough, convincingly enough. Maybe it was my own weakness that made me ultimately go along with it even though I wasn’t ready. But in reality, no means no.
Perhaps a more compassionate approach to radical honesty is the concept of self-awareness. Jesus and Buddha both say in their teachings that it is self-awareness that leads us to the most moral version of ourselves. Self-awareness is the goal of therapy, too. To truly acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and motivations. To have your eyes wide open. Self-awareness means that we recognize that we aren’t better than anyone else. Any sin we can accuse others of is something that we have committed, too. Once you realize this, you understand why you can’t cast the first stone. Hence, you cannot help but have compassion for everyone, including yourself. Because we are all ultimately the same. Just trying to get through life without a road map, stumbling along, doing the best that we can.
And that’s the truth.