Brutal Honesty in the Age of Being Real


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of being real, it was the age of delusional thinking, it was the epoch of honesty, it was the epoch of lies, it was the season of transparency, it was the season of delusions, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were going to achieve, what we had already achieved, what we would never achieve – in short, it was a period of time that needed to exist to rectify a period that may never have existed to the superlative degree of comparison that some of its noisiest authorities defined for the era.

As that paraphrase of Charles Dickens’ epic intro to A Tale of Two Cities suggests, reality TV did not the divide American culture in the manner some purported it would in the age of being real. The doyens and doyennes of our culture asked if reality TV was art imitating life, or if it was reflecting it? Others suggested reality TV represented such a small sample of the culture that the shows’ producers projected it out into the society as a measure of realness that wasn’t real to the superlative degree they portrayed? Others wondered if the culture used reality TV for what it was and dispensed of it in manner similar to the way a body puts out byproducts it can’t use?  Some people I knew, very real and intelligent people, acknowledged that while reality TV focused on a sample of a society none of us knew that didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

"Lars and The Real Girl"

“Lars and The Real Girl”

How many times in one episode did an actor say, “Hey, I’m just being real with ya” to assuage the guilt they might otherwise have while insulting another person? How many times did these show participants gain a certain degree of realness on the back of another? How many times was being real used as a confrontational device to belittle those who were less real, until the real proponent managed to gain some real definition on them?

Being real, in such instances, was nothing more than a cudgel used to diminish a person who wasn’t like the speaker. They used this device to make the unreal more like the real, and the viewer at home was supposed to accept all that as real thinking, if they ever hoped to gain real stature in the real world. Most of us now reflect back on the being real era, and see it as an intellectually dishonest era, designed to promote the position of the proselytizing speakers. 

Those of us who thought the age of being real was anything but, couldn’t deny the influence it had on the culture in general, and our friends and family. Otherwise kind and polite individuals who wouldn’t say an unkind word about anyone yesterday, started lobbing verbal grenades at us. “Hey,” we would say. 

“I’m just being real with ya,” they would respond. For word watchers in search of colloquialisms, it was mandatory for real people to use the less formal incarnation of the word you as a literary device to gain familiarity with the subject of their insults.   

“Why did you say that? That was not very nice.”

“We can do that now, in this era of being real.”

No one said that latter line, of course, but that was the import of the discussion. It didn’t happen in a day, and it didn’t happen this way, but friends and family felt they could say anything they wanted in this era, and they didn’t need to bother being conscientious, if they were just being real with ya. 

Those of us who experienced this era and studied it for what it was, learned it was based on the false premise that one could be real with ya without undergoing any substantive reflection of their own. Even those who may have watched a total of one hour of the more sophomoric shows of reality TV, could not escape its influence.

We thought the era of white lies were over. Even if being real had nothing more than a conjugal relationship with brutal honesty, and some of us used the nuggets of that message to put more brutal honesty in our presentation, regardless if anyone thought we were being real or not. In any repeated message of this type, there is a personal takeaway for some. Most of us didn’t believe the real characters in reality shows were being real, in other words, but the presentation affected us nonetheless. We changed our presentation to one that could be called brutal honesty, in regards to how we thought we should be perceived, and we encountered a number of surprising reactions.

The most surprising reaction we received was no reaction. We would detail our weaknesses for our audience and our trials and tribulations, and they would not say anything. We would finish our testimonial, and if someone didn’t say something to change the subject, the lunchroom table would go through a seven-second lull. Our audience presumably took it in stride, because they thought they were as honest with themselves as we purported to be. They lived with the idea that they were so honest that most people couldn’t handle their special brand of honesty. It didn’t dawn on them, however, that that interpretation of brutal honesty was limited to assessing others. Very few have the wherewithal to evaluate themselves honestly, and their particular brand of being real incorporated many of the elements the dictionary uses to define the word delusional. Those who attempt to help them be more real learn that it’s pointless, because the subject will attempt to be more real than you, with you, until the discussion devolves to something equivalent to the type of gunfight banter Hollywood writes into scripts to provide a tense setting for paragraphs of exposition.   

Those who have never made a concerted effort to be honest about themselves, might expect that being harshly critical of one’s self to be somewhat influential. The expectation I had was that others might “raise their game” in this regard, to be more honest. They didn’t, because, again, real people already think they are brutally honest.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction to displaying brutal honesty, in the age of being real, was that our friends began to think less of us. In any other era, it might make sense to consider a person who provides us a laundry list of weaknesses a weak person. In the era of being real, we might fall prey to the belief that our friends and family might consider such brutal honesty refreshing, and that they might consider that moment the perfect time to be just as honest in return. No such luck. What often happens is that they join in on the discussion and add other weaknesses that the brutally honest person neglected to include.  

“How do you think you’d do in jail?” A Delusional Person asks Frank.

“Not well,” Frank replies with refreshing, brutal honesty.

When Frank provides a laundry list for why he probably wouldn’t do well in jail, the Delusional Person might laugh, because being this honest can be humorous when the recipient is allowed to bathe in the weaknesses of its purveyor. The Delusional Person will often agree with Frank’s frank assessment of himself, but they won’t assess themselves by the same measure.

“How do you think you would do?” Frank returns.

“I think I’d do all right,” the Delusional Person replies.

Even in the age of being real, most people fell prey to the idealized images they have of themselves. One of the more effective measures weight loss programs will employ are progress charting photos. They ask their clients to do this, because we can look in the mirror every day and fail to see our progress or regressions. We need a somewhat distant perspective to truly evaluate ourselves, and the same holds true with conversational scenarios such these.     

Most of us live with idealized images of ourselves, as if they happened yesterday for the rest of our lives. This particular Delusional Person was a championship-level wrestler in his teenage years. While on the wrestling team, he endured exhaustive workouts, and exercised levels of self-discipline, that most non-athletes will never know. This resulted in The Delusional Person being a finely crafted specimen who at that time may, indeed, have been capable of handling the hand-to-hand combat situations reported to occur within the confines of a cell block. When he answered Frank’s question, the Delusional Person remembered himself as finely tuned wrestler who won championships. The idea that lifted a weight or sprinted in fifteen years didn’t enter into his equation. A more brutally honest assessment of his stay in prison should have been, “I don’t know how I would so in jail, but I suspect that all of the years I’ve spent sitting behind a computer, and avoiding physical activity, would be exposed early on.”

We all picture ourselves in peak physical condition when we listen to others speak about how they have let themselves go. We laugh when others joke about those who have gained weight, conveniently forgetting that we just graduated to a thirty-six inch waist pair of pants last week. We’ll do this when we speak about the people we grew up with who “now look so old”, even though we’re now using hair-dye, wrinkle cream, and supplements to fight the aging process. We aren’t lying when we do this either, we’re projecting an idyllic image of ourselves into these scenarios that used to be able to lay out an entire prison yard when we were called upon to do so … in the movies.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction I encountered was a kind, polite person who had no interest in being real, adding brutal honesty to my brutally honest presentation. 

“Are you sure that you’re capable of that?” she asked after I informed her that I threw my hat in the ring for a promotion that had everyone abuzz. The surprising element of this question was not that she asked it, for it could be said that she was looking out for me in her own way, but that she never asked that question of any of our other co-workers. With them, she expressed in what we could call a Hallmark card-style response to their desire to advance within the company. “Good luck!” she would say to them, or “I know you can do it.” She may have said those words to be polite, but she wasn’t polite with me. 

She asked me to reconsider whether I might be qualified. I told her that I had as many, if not more, qualifications than some of the others who applied for it. I assumed her question was borne of jealousy, but I didn’t say that. After processing her warning, I acknowledged that she was kind person, and I realized that her concerns were simple reactions to my presentations of brutal honesty. She didn’t want me to get hurt by the realities of my limits, limits that I had expressed in the course of being honest about my vulnerabilities, and she was just reacting to what I told her over the years.

Yet, people like my sweet, polite friend can inadvertently assist those striving for brutal honesty into a depressing state of their reality. The honest assessor realizes, about halfway down the spiral, that they’re doing this to themselves, and that they’re becoming too honest. Their friends aren’t helping, but their friends are just reacting to what they’ve heard us say, and they’re regurgitating our harsh and brutal opinions of us to us. Our friends are, in fact, greasing the skids to a form of depression. An honest assessor realizes, about halfway down this spiral, that they’ve become so realistic in their assessments that they’ve become brutally realistic.

We might start avoiding attempts to advance ourselves, because we’ve become so realistic in our abilities that we’re now asking ourselves so many brutally honest questions that we’re afraid to try and advance. As a result of such thorough examination, we’ve also become so realistic that we don’t think it’s realistic for any honest assessor to succeed. These could be called minor setbacks in the grand scheme of becoming more honest with one’s self, until we begin to see the Delusional People around us –some with half of our talent– begin to succeed beyond us. These Delusional People may even know that they’re lying to themselves, on some level, but they’re harmless little, white lies that everyone tells themselves in the quest for advancement, and if you can get all of them to add up just right, they may become a reality that no one can deny.

When the company selected Molly for this promotion, the confusion it created was almost painful. It wasn’t Armageddon, and no one was harmed by the company’s decision, but the aftermath of this tragedy left a proverbial wasteland of confusion. Those who devoted a large portion of their lives to this company felt that it could only be outweighed by familial or personal tragedies. The world moves on after political disasters, and religious hypocrisies can be overcome through personal devotion, but a seismic disaster on par with a person of Molly’s character, and work ethic, landing a top gig in their company can lead to reverberations that are felt throughout a person’s life. The company is where most people live most often. It’s a better indicator of how they’re living, as it’s the place where most people devote most of their resources. When matters in the workplace take a divergent path, different from all of the scenarios workers list in their head, it can lead to a company wide crisis.

“Part of an interview involves salesmanship,” those in the know tell the employees gathered in a team meeting, and that assessment was to remain within those closed doors, as off the record comments. This assessment was a “wink and a nod” attempt to assuage the confusion building around what many considered an absolute travesty. 

Those who have been in similar situations know the term “new reality”, as it becomes the theme of the many presentations that follow. If those in the know do comment on such a situation, they will say something along the lines of “You should be happy for Molly”. This leaves the suggestion that most of the confused, are confused about her promotion as a result of personal animus.

“We wouldn’t have a problem if Marsha, Kelly, or Dan received this promotion,” one person argued to reflect the general sentiment of the aggrieved, “but if Molly has any moral fiber, or conscience, she won’t be able to sleep at night.” No one cares. Molly has scoreboard. It’s the new reality. Deal with it. 

Amid the personal and professional confusion, one honest assessor, from the out of the loop sector, stepped forth and professed the harsh reality of the situation: “Molly simply fed into the leadership mystique of her superiors better than us.

“When we were concerned themselves with learning the inner machinations of the company’s system in a proficient manner they hoped might impress their superiors,“ the honest assessor added, “Molly was purchasing gift baskets for her bosses on boss day. When others were out volunteering for special projects to pad their resumé, and working untold amounts of overtime to put a smile on their bosses’ faces, Molly was at the bosses’ lunch tables laughing at their jokes, and when all of the applicants were drilling the interviewer with the bullet points of their resumé, Molly was feeding into whatever mystique they wanted to gain in that particular setting. This was Molly’s primary skill set.“

It was a bow atop the corporate basket of lies given to bosses, on boss day, in the age of being real. In the age of being real, employees began to demand more recognition for their accomplishments, and management responded, but in the end the employees realized that it was all part of a scripted, choreographed, and edited production designed to pacify their audience by mentioning their name in the credits that rolled out at the end of the day. When crunch time came, however, it was the Delusional People who had learned how to feed the mystique of those in the know that left everyone else feeling malnourished.

“Those who live in a dishonest manner will eventually get theirs,” our nuns told us in grade school. They also told us that, “Truth has a way of prevailing”. The company eventually discovered what everyone knew at the time, Molly was eventually discovered to be “not a good fit” for the position, but she was promoted up and out of the position, and out of the department, and the person who replaced her was yet another mystique feeder.

Those of us who lived and breathed corporate America heard all the stories about evil corporations, but we knew our corporate leadership board. They weren’t faceless corporate entities. They were people named Jeff and Sandy, and all the others who had kids and cats. We had one boss who was learning how to ride a motorcycle, and she drove one of her friend’s beloved Harleys into the ground, and it wasn’t funny, but it was. She was a real life, flawed individual who wasn’t afraid to show us her scars, literal and otherwise. When they speak in our corporate meetings, and our one on ones, we learn a little bit about their essence. We learned how they took their coffee, and what shows they went home to watch, and it all seemed so real, until they selected Molly for a big promotion.

We were all temporarily and permanently disillusioned. We thought our corporation was different, and that they hired and fired, and promoted and handed out raises based on merit. We believed that our corporation did not rise and fall based on the whims of faceless corporate entities. Ours was a real corporation comprised of people who knew us as well as we did them. We weren’t so delusion that we thought Jeff and Sandy knew us, but we thought some knowledge of our essence ascended from our bosses through the spider web, hierarchy, until we felt our efforts were recognized. 

The problem –those naïve enough to believe in the age of being real– discovered was not with Molly, but that Molly was emblematic of the problems inherent in a system that honest people once believed would find a way to provide rewards to those honest, hard working people who put their nose to the grindstone. The problem that seemed so complex to those of us who tried to wrestle with it, turned out to be so simple. The problem was that the various Jeffs and Sandys who controlled the spigots of reward for the hard working women and men in our company were humans themselves, and humans are inherently susceptible to flattery.

The nuns also provided their grade school students the proviso that if you’re living the honest life with the expectation of eventually receiving concretized recognition for it, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. We knew they were preaching gospel when they said this. Even if we didn’t know the depth of their statement, or how it might apply over time, some part of us knew that the rewards of living the honest life involve intangible, internal, and spiritual rewards. When the Delusional People begin to beat us to the more tangible goals in life, however, even the most honest assessors in a group will admit that it is difficult to avoid being affected by it, if they are being real with you.

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