My mother has cancer and is unlikely to live out the month. She and my dad (who has dementia and is not part of this equation) belong to a devout and strict religious denomination, in which my siblings and I were raised. The last time I saw her she told me, and apparently she has also told everyone else in the family and half the nurses in her personal-care facility, that she will not be able to rest easy in the afterlife unless I promise to give up alcohol and non-marital sex (although she calls it “fornication”). I have no intention of giving up either one. That is not my question. My question is whether I should promise anyway.
One of my other failings as a daughter is that I do not believe in the afterlife, so I have no worries about Mom’s looking down at me, sipping vodka and fornicating away, and feeling betrayed. But I do believe in telling the truth whenever possible. My sister says to go ahead and promise because a promise is not a lie until you break it, and I can cross that bridge when I come to it. My older brother, who is a pillar of his community and about as flexible, is pushing for me to make the promise and keep it, of course. My younger brother says to just say whatever makes Ma happy. Nobody in my family will give me any support for telling Ma that I love her, but will not make empty promises. What should I do?
—Jefferson City Jezebel
Normally I am a huge fan of telling the truth. Love, civil society, trust, science, and many other fine things heavily depend on it. What’s more, telling the truth to your loved ones is a way of showing respect, whether you agree with them or are paying them “the compliment of rational opposition,” as Jane Austen puts it.
But your case may be an exception.
I will take you at your word that you do not believe in an afterlife, and I will accept that you are correct. If so, what we are talking about is your mother’s remaining days on Earth, since “resting easy” after death is not (we stipulate) an issue. I will also assume that your mother is sincere in her fears for your soul or wellbeing, and that her emotional blackmail is basically heartfelt and not mere cussedness. If you do think it is just cussedness—if all she wants is to humiliate you or assert her power, and especially if this is part of a long and destructive pattern—then she deserves scant consideration despite her imminent death, and you have every right either to stand your ground vigorously or to lie through your teeth, whichever you think will be easier for you.
Assuming your mom is basically sincere and that, when we die, we die, the question (the ethical question, anyway) then becomes whether you should tell a lie—and, yes, I agree with you that making a promise you do not intend to keep is the moral equivalent of a lie—in hopes that it will relieve some of your mother’s distress in her final days.
I can understand how misleading your mother might be morally and emotionally distasteful to you, since you would not be treating her as a full equal. Refusing to make the promises she’s asking for, while consoling her in every other way possible, is one honorable course. If this is the route you decide to take, you can try to soften your refusal by reminding her that, according to her belief system, she will probably have many years in heaven to pray that you see the light. You could even add that, although you cannot make a blanket vow to abstain from sex and alcohol, you will promise to live responsibly and take her wishes and advice into account when making decisions. You can thank her for all the ways she has contributed to your success in life and to your being a basically good person.
On the other hand, I believe that it is permissible to take a few liberties with the truth if warming and varnishing it will console a person whose death is near. Some falsehoods and false promises become less problematic as the person becomes more distressed, and less rational, over time, and as death approaches. I can’t think of anyone who, holding the hand of delirious gunshot victim as he bleeds out, would say: “No, I’m not your darling Annabelle, I’m just some random stranger.” In your case, the question may be where you draw this line. If your mother becomes increasingly confused from illness or medication, telling her almost anything she wants to hear may start to feel like no more than a complex variant of “there, there,” or “it’s gonna be okay, we love you.” And as she gets closer to death, especially if there is pain involved, you may care less about treating her as a rational being and more about making her happy.
If you do relent and make those empty promises as time and illness march on, this is fine. If you hold out, this is fine, too. Given the facts as you have relayed them in your letter, you are in a situation where kind, reasonable, ethical people can differ.
Do be kind and respectful, in some combination. That is the essential point. But remember that there are at least two people you have to be kind to, and respect, in this situation: your mother and yourself. So far I have been focusing on the relative merits of treating your mother with respect (a Kantian, end-in-herself approach, if you like to think in those terms) and minimizing her pain (a more Utilitarian, Benthamite approach). What I’ve left out is your own current and future pain, and your own self-respect. Perhaps your reluctance to make false promises to your mother stems not just, or not at all, from wanting to be dutiful to her, but rather from not wanting to give in to the way she is capitalizing on her illness and trying to make you deny who you are as a person: a drinker, a lover, a truth-teller, a woman of integrity. These are certainly valid grounds for reluctance: where our ego and sense of self are concerned, mothers are about as powerful and potentially destructive as it gets, and this power is one thing I can assure you lives on after death. Even if such self-regarding, self-protecting considerations are your main motivation for standing your ground with your mother, I would never counsel you to go against your instincts.
I hope I have given you, if not an answer, at least a useful set of questions that will help you make your decision.
P.S. Whatever you decide to say or do, I would stop talking to your family about it. At least one of them is bound to second-guess you.
What do you make of people’s listing pronouns in their email signature? Although I certainly don’t oppose it, I do find it a bit odd.
I have gotten two emails with signature lines basically like this:
I do not want to be behind the times. Is this a thing? Do you approve of it? If so, should I get in there ahead of the crowd? By the way, I am a straight, cis (a word I just learned) man with a traditional male first name.
—Not Joe in North Jersey
I have seen several signature lines lately in which the sender lists the pronouns people should use when referring to him or her (or them or, to use one popular gender-neutral singular pronoun, hir). But, then again, I travel in rarified and exquisitely PC circles.
So yes, listing pronouns in email signatures is definitely a thing, especially in the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) community and in organizations that serve or support its members. And it serves useful purposes. Most obviously, it makes sense for trans people to let their correspondents know how they want others to refer to them. Specifying pronouns makes equally good sense for anyone whose name may create gender-pronoun confusion. If you are a woman (trans or cis) named Michael, the information that you use female pronouns can come in handy. The same is true if you have a gender-neutral name (“Leslie,” “Morgan”), or a gendered name you do not expect all your correspondents to identify correctly (“Tomoko,” “Béla”).
It does seem to me that adding a parenthetical “Mr.” or “Ms.” after one’s name would serve similar purposes and be readily understood in more contexts. My friend René has been doing so for decades, partly to avoid getting booked into double rooms with irate women on business conferences. But the stylistic tide seems to have turned.
It also logical for people who do not wish to be assigned any gender to let their correspondents know this, but an email signature line may not always be the best way to get the message across. I suspect that many email recipients in the larger society—by which I mean outside the LGBTQIA community and its more progressive and socially literate supporters, such as liberal academia—would simply be confused by an email signature line like “pronouns: they, their, them” or “preferred pronouns: ze, hir” or “no pronouns, please.” I also feel constrained to add that, as one moves rightward and straightward along the spectrum of email recipients, there are plenty of scenarios where any allusion whatever to gender fluidity could cause serious personal and business problems.
Risks like these are one reason why I do not think anybody should be required to list their pronouns on business email. For example, some trans people may prefer the risk of being assigned the wrong pronoun to the risk that mentioning a pronoun preference would lead to questions and, ultimately, to their being outed as trans among unsympathetic commercial correspondents.
Let us turn, at last, to your own situation: should you, as a cis person with a name that raises no gender issues, add a pronoun line to your email signature? My answer to this question depends on context and milieu.
Using a pronoun line is commendable as a sign of solidarity with people who don’t fit so easily into gender norms. Doing so can also be educational: people who see the pronoun line and are dubious, or perplexed, may ask around about the practice, maybe Google it, maybe even ask you. Minds may be opened. And the more email users, especially those who do not have any personal need to do so, adopt the practice, the more normal and routine it will become, creating a situation where more people are identified as they wish to be, and fewer people have to worry that the very act of listing their pronouns will out them as trans or otherwise different.
Solidarity, education, normalization: all good reasons to add that line.
On the other hand, as you say in your letter, the practice does seem a bit odd in cases like yours, where the issue of pronouns would seldom if ever occur to anybody. Depending on where you live and work, a pronoun line in your case might tend simply to mystify your recipients, annoy them, or strike them as an affectation. You may find that more of your correspondents are amused, or vexed, than impressed by your beating the crowd on this one.
But so what? Including pronouns is a generous gesture, and one all of us cis, unambiguously named folks should at least consider in this age of mean-spiritedness and school bathroom restrictions. Except, perhaps, in the case of some specific recipients you think might respond in ways that aren’t helpful to anybody, I see no reason not to use the pronoun line in your personal correspondence.
Business email is a bit different, partly because many employers have branding norms or even require a specific signature line. If you work for a large buttoned-down corporation, an effort to change this this line may not be the battle to choose right now. On the other hand, if you work for a smaller organization, especially one that serves, or should work harder to serve, the LGBTQIA community, the battle for pronouns in your organization’s standard signature format may be more meaningful and easier to win. (Some schools and health-care providers already do include pronouns in their standard signature.) And if you work at a place where nobody cares how you sign your name, or if you are self-employed, you are in a good position to experiment.
The email-signature pronoun issue is not one where I have strong opinions. But I am beginning to wonder whether I should. What do readers think?
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Sarah Trumbull on Her Deathbed by John Trumbull, 1824, Wikipedia