A Compassionate Lie
Updated: Apr 3
It was a quiet afternoon in a small American town in 1848. Everything was peaceful, when suddenly, there was the piercing sound of a gunshot. The chief of police immediately rushed to the scene with his new, young police assistant.
When they arrived, they found a teenager lying in a pool of blood on the ground of his bedroom, his right hand loose with a gun next to it. Beside him was a messily written suicide note, which explained that the girl he was deeply in love with went to church with another boy the other day.
Outside the room, a big crowd was forming, all eager to see what had happened. The dead boy's relatives stood silently in the room, staring blankly at each other. The young police assistant couldn't help but give them a sympathetic glance. He could feel their hurt and hopelessness, not only because of this boy's death, but also because they are all Christians.
In Christianity, committing suicide is a big sin, and the deceased person's soul will suffer severe punishment in Hell. Moreover, all the people in this conservative Christian town will view this family as heretics. From that day on, no decent young man would invite a girl of that family out, and no decent young girl would be willing to marry a boy from that family.
This whole time, the policy chief remained silent, frowning in observation of the whole scene. Finally, he said, "This is a murder." He squatted down and carefully touched around the dead boy's body and arms. Suddenly, he turned around and said in a serious tone of voice, "Has anyone here seen his silver watch?"
Everyone knew that this boy always carried around a silver watch. It was the only gift that the girl had ever given him. He would often look at that watch, and his heart would be filled with warmth as the sunlight reflected off it. All the people in the crowd talked among themselves, but no one had seen the watch recently.
The police chief then stood up and said, "If none of you have seen the watch recently, then that means the murderer must have taken it. This is a classic case of murder to steal valuable possessions."
The boy's family members immediately started crying as their feelings of shame quickly turned into sorrow. The neighbors and onlookers who were originally judgmental towards the family also came forward and expressed their condolences.
The police chief confidently said, "As soon as we find this watch, we know who the murderer is!" The sun outside was still bright on this clear afternoon, and the villagers all left the scene to search.
The young police assistant was utterly amazed at the police chief's detective abilities, and he asked, "Where should we start searching for this watch?"
The police chief let out a slight, almost undetectable smile as he slowly reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver watch.
In shock, the young assistant said, "Could it be…?"
The police chief looked around and remained silent.
The young assistant said, "Then, he must have committed suicide. Why did you convince everyone that it was a murder?"
The police chief replied, "This way, his family doesn't need to worry about where his soul went. Also, after their period of sorrow is over, they can continue living a normal life with all the other Christians in town."
The young assistant said, "But you told a lie. Lying is against the Ten Commandments."
The police chief stared sharply at the young assistant and said, "Young man, believe me: The lives of six people are much more important. Besides, I trust that even God would turn a deaf ear to a lie told from a compassionate heart."
This was the young police assistant's first case, and it was also the most meaningful one in the course of his career.
Rules are important, but we must not blindly follow rules without understanding the reasoning behind them. If we blindly follow rules, we might end up using them inappropriately.
Trustworthiness is extremely important for our relationships and success. Naturally, not lying is an important commandment in many religions, not just Christianity, but we have to understand the reasoning behind it. If your friend asks you if she looks nice in that dress, and you think she looks absolutely horrible, would you say, "To be honest, you look absolutely hideous in that dress"? Of course not!
The principle behind not lying is to not hurt others. Usually, people lie to hurt or cheat others, to protect their own reputation, or to gain something for themselves at the expense of the other person. If you are telling a lie to protect them, as was the case in the story, then that is not considered breaking the rules.
For example, I am working abroad, and sometimes my parents will tell me to sleep early. I assure them that I will, but realistically, I occasionally have to sleep late due to work. If I blindly insist on telling the truth and say, "Sorry I cannot sleep before 11 because I have too much to do," then that will only cause them to worry. The whole point of telling the truth is to ease their worries.
The Buddha also gave an example:
Imagine you arrived at a fork-road, and you see a rabbit pass by. Soon after, a hunter comes and asks if you saw a rabbit pass by. What should you do? According to the Buddha, you should lie and tell the hunter to go down a road that the rabbit did not go down. Why? Because this way, you save the rabbit's life, and you also save the hunter from committing the sin of killing.
Therefore, we must understand rules to avoid using them ignorantly and inappropriately.
Weekly Wisdom #231