The Nightingale, "Sorites" and the Truth

A couple weeks ago, my Monday night book group met to discuss “The Nightingale,” by Kristin Hannah. [It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it.]  Toward the end of the conversation, I raised a question about a significant plot point that concerns a key decision made by one of the main characters–and, here I should say SPOILER ALERT.  

The sister of “the nightingale,” Viann, struggles to maintain her home and life in Vichy France even while her house is occupied by German officers.  Toward the end of the book and in the waning months of the war, she is raped by the second officer who had commandeered her house, and she becomes pregnant.  Almost immediately, however, her beloved husband, Antoine, returns home from the war, and Viann and her daughter Sophie agree to let Antoine believe that the child is his.  The birth of the boy, Julien, ends up re-forming the family again in many ways, and grows up to be a great comfort to Viann in her old age [The book goes back and forth in time, and both begins and ends in the present].

The question that I raised, then, was “Should Julien have been told the truth?”  It was an interesting discussion, with most of my friends feeling that no, he shouldn’t have been told:  what point would it have served?  But I pushed back.  Part of the reason for my opinion on this stems from the fact that I am adopted, and my own experience of adoption is so good:  I never remember a time when I didn’t know, and the way the story was narrated to me was extremely positive, and has shaped me positively in very significant ways.  And, I know exactly how I would have felt if I had found out at some much-later time–especially knowing that other family members and friends had known all along:  I would have felt betrayed. And, it is this situation of adoption that led me to write this post—specifically this piece from “The New York Times”:  Should a Sibling be told she is Adopted?   The sister is asking this very poignant question about her own family, and making clear the challenges of hiding the truth, even for what seemed to be good reasons at the time.   In the answer to the question, the Ethicist describes the “sorites,” the philosophical paradox that is named for the Greek word for “heap.”  The paradox consists in the fact that there is no one definable moment when a group of individual grains of sand become a heap–yet, at some point “a heap is what you have.”  The moral is that in some ethical situations, while there is no definable deadline by which an action should be taken, yet, at some point, you’ve waited too long.  And, the reality is, “Sorites sins can creep up on well-intentioned people,” and they can “rock relationships.”

The author notes that “The sorites model helps explain how we can gradually end up in a dire state through inaction.”  In other words [and in a theological framework], it explains why in the Order for Confession and Forgiveness in the Lutheran Church, we confess sins “known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do.”  It may seem sometimes like doing something evil is worse than not doing something good, but often, that distinction is just a matter of perception–and a matter of time.

I understand people’s motivations–even when often they are a little selfish:  we tell ourselves that withholding the truth is protecting others, but it often is our own lives, and our own self-understand that we are trying to protect first and foremost.  I’m not so naive as to say that the truth is always the best in all situations–life is way too complicated and messy to assert that unequivocally.  But I will say that I believe lying–either by commission or omission–always creates problems, and should be avoided whenever possible.  Doesn’t the truth always strengthen relationships, ultimately?  Do lies ever do that?

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