Hypocrisy – There’s much to dislike about it

Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue (Francois De La Rochefoucauld)

One of the most common vices, or bad habits, is hypocrisy. There’s much to dislike about it. Mainly, it’s a misuse of the gift of speech because language is used to conceal instead of reveal. By pretending to be what they are not, hypocrites imprison themselves. Although the doors of their cells are unlocked, they are afraid to step out and reveal their true selves. Hypocrites are liars. They practice deception. They bear false witness against themselves. But the moment they abandon their lies and practice integrity, the walls of their prison crumble, and there will be no need to hide. The truth will set them free.

Hypocrisy is pervasive. Almost no one is free from its influence. Our beliefs, like the weather, change with the circumstances. Here’s how William Shakespeare (1564 ~ 1616) described our wavering and hypocritical beliefs: “Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail and say there is no sin but to be rich; and being rich, my virtue then shall be to say there is no vice but beggary.” (King John, II:1) Also, Leo Tolstoy (1828 ~ 1910) describes our reluctance to act on our hypocritical concerns for the welfare of others: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means — except by getting off his back.” (What then Must We Do?, chapter 16)

Not all hypocrisy is the same. The vile version is practiced by those who profess what they do not believe in. They are the scammers that stuff their pockets with money obtained by exploiting others. They come in many forms: Corporate CEO’s, preachers, and salespeople, to name a few. What can be more loathsome than evangelistic hucksters who, in the name of God, rob the poor, elderly, and sick? Fortunately, most of us do not fall into the above group. We belong to the category that doesn’t practice what it wishes it would. It is not corruption that is our fault, but weakness. Even the saints are not immune. St. Paul, for instance, wrote in his letter to the Romans “that which I do, I ought not to do and that which I ought to do, I do not do.”

Merely by recognizing there is a better way to live, we are paying homage to virtue. And in most cases, our conscience will eventually turn us around, restoring our integrity. The same is true for our social conscience. The recent recognition of the contributions of African-Americans at the Academy Awards Ceremony was a long time in coming. For on September 24, 1774 Abigail wrote about slavery in a letter to her husband, John Adams, “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me — to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” This is an example how the recognition of and resistance to hypocrisy can lead to social change, even if it did take 228 years from the time Abigail wrote the letter.

Some lessons on hypocrisy:

1. Let’s learn to recognize hypocrisy in others, not to condemn them, but to learn from their mistakes how we, too, may be guilty. Don’t scorn hypocrites. For how can we know what fears, weaknesses, and troubles lurk in their hearts? Our job is to judge ourselves, not others. Don’t sow contempt and disharmony by speaking ill of others. After all, “Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.” (Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1878 ~ 1969)

2. Once you discover your own hypocrisy, congratulate yourself, for that means you admire the virtue you pretend to have. The trouble is, you believe you cannot practice it. It’s time to correct your misperception, for you are capable of far more than you realize. Just as a physical weakling can develop muscles and strength by lifting weights, all of us can develop greater moral and spiritual strength by practicing the traits we admire in others. All we have to do is stop pretending to be what we are not and start acting in the manner we pretend to be. Don’t worry about being perfect; just try to be better.

3. Don’t refuse to learn a valuable lesson just because the messenger is a hypocrite, for as Oscar Wilde (1856-1900) wrote, “The value of an idea has nothing whatever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.” Neither can one argue against going to church because there are too many hypocrites; after all, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer (1906 ~ 1945) said, “The Church is not composed of righteous saints, but forgiven sinners.”

4. Even if we were free of hypocrisy, if we were to speak ill of hypocrites, we would be guilty of spreading gossip. Never speak about someone you dislike, for if you dislike them, you have a bias and cannot speak fairly. We can avoid much trouble by refusing to speak about others, unless we have something good to say about them.

5. If you detest hypocrites, it may be because you do not truly know them. And you do not truly know them because you detest them. So, open your heart; look for the good, and welcome them into the fold, for whom among us is not a hypocrite? The story is told of a traveler who happened to meet Buddha. Never before had he seen someone radiating so much peace and compassion. Stunned, he asked, “What are you? Are you a heavenly being?” “No,” replied Buddha. “Are you a holy man?” asked the traveler. “No,” said Buddha. “Well, then,” the traveler persisted, “are you an ordinary man?” “No,” said Buddha. “What, then, are you?” asked the traveler. “Awake,” replied Buddha.

Let’s lead our lives in such a fashion that if anyone ever asks us, “Are you a hypocrite?” we would be able to reply, “No, I’m awake.”

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