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The Trouble with Honesty

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george washington thumbnail“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” – George Washington, U.S. General and President, 1732-1799

I have been writing for Wolf and Iron for a while now, working on a book, and have done a bit of writing before blogging, and never had what is called writer’s block. I have always been able to conjure up something to write about with some semblance of passion. I have a pretty significant backlog of items that are worthy of writing about but I tend to choose the things that interest me because, like most writers, I write better when the ink wants to flow rather than squeezing each drop from the nib, as it were. But, in the last few weeks I have experienced the culmination of a lot of prayer and decision-making for an event that has overshadowed half of my life. It is a situation that I find myself in more often than I like: I believe there is some important truth that ought to be brought into the light and other people don’t see it or won’t take action, and I just can’t sit back and let it fester. This has happened in churches, work, friendships, family life…pretty much in every area of my life to some degree; often enough that I know when it is more of a spiritual prompting vs. when it is just an opinion or pet peeve. Each time I take action, say what needs to be said, it feels both right and awful at the same time. It’s kind of like spanking your kids or ripping the bandage off or taking the sour medicine. But, I also know that when the dust settles, I look back on those times with a certain sense of pride knowing I followed my heart and did what I believed was right. To be honest, the situations don’t always work out for the immediate best; churches split up, people get fired, friends walk away. Other than knowing I spoke or acted truly, there may not be any clear signs of good which came from it.

In these last weeks a number of emotions have surfaced, or rather tried to surface, but too entangled in each other to pick one out and focus on it and so my “Heart Based” articles sort of dried up. It also crowded out a lot of mental space I typically use for the easier and more technical “How To” articles. I think this must be what writer’s block is, or at least what it is for me. It isn’t the absence of things to write about, but the inability to find a free space in my mind to pull together the necessary elements to make a cogent thought. It’s like looking at a fire. Its beauty makes you want to pause the flames and study them, but they are moving and changing so quickly you can’t, and, even if you could, it may lose all of its fascinating qualities. Isn’t it because it is alive and glowing and dangerous that we are so drawn into it? So, here, I will try to get back on track with a subject that has been heavy on my mind: the difficulty in honesty. I believe it is because honesty is often difficult that we deem it a virtue.

An Honest Man Loves Truth

Richard_Whately“Honesty is the best policy; but he who is governed by that maxim is not an honest man.” – Richard Whately, English rhetorician, logician, economist, and theologian, 1787-1863

robert-e-lee-portrait“The trite saying that honesty is the best policy has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.” – Robert E. Lee, General of the Confederate Army, 1807-1870

Take a moment to take in what Whately and Lee are saying in the quotes above. Lee states it so well “The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.” In other words, even if the truth adds no value to him, even if it may mean he has been wrong, even if it may do him harm, he is compelled towards it because it is right; it is truth.

Suppose we had a social policy that said people must always be honest. The movie and book The Giver is an example of this (great movie by the way). Christians and Jews have something like this as well:  “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.” Leviticus 19:11. We may then be honest even when we don’t want to. The fact that it is policy supersedes whether or not we want to tell the truth. We don’t even get to the point of judging our own willingness to be true because we stop at policy, or “Thou shalt not…” But, an honest man wants the truth before and without policy. He wants truth because it is true.

The Consequences of Dishonesty

“When the truth is obvious, and people do not choose it, it leads to confusion.” – Unknown.

There has been a lot of confusion related to the government’s response to the Ebola outbreak, both abroad and at home. A lot of this comes from the government not taking what appears to be the right precautions and action against this contagion. Granted this is from a layman’s point of view, but for most people, a mandatory quarantine seems like the right start to a contain the virus. Because we see this as the right or “true” action to take, it leads us to confusion and ultimately to doubt the effectiveness of those in charge of these kinds of incidents. We begin to think that either Ebola isn’t that big of a deal, which is in contrast with all that we hear about it, or that our government officials are completely incompetent. For the purposes of this article, the goal isn’t to address the Ebola outbreak, but to see this as an example of how we value truth and one of the common consequences of taking the false path.

There are consequences to being dishonest and rewards for being honest. It is so easy for us to excuse white lies, sometimes a lot of them, and justify larger deceptions. If we can have a right understanding of honesty as a virtue and the consequences of being dishonest, maybe it will help us hold ourselves to a higher standard.

The Practical

Abraham Lincoln“No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar.” – Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President, 1809-1865

In purely practical terms, lying is bad for us. Numerous studies have shown that lying is bad for your health: A quick search and this Lifehacker article for example. When we lie we use real people and real events co-mingled with fictional ones. This is taxing for the brain and the emotions. Because a good lie involves elements of truth, we end up with something called Cognitive Dissonance. When we attempt to hold two conflicting beliefs, it creates mental stress. This is different from a story such as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which creates a sort of historical fiction; a bit of history imbued with a great deal of fiction. When we lie we don’t do it for positive purposes such as creating fictional characters in a story for the purposes of entertainment or imparting a moral message, we do it to protect ourselves. In other words, we most often lie out of fear. Now, when we lie, we double down on the fear because we now have the fear that our lie will be discovered and we will be exposed as a liar, as well as revealing the thing we were lying about in the first place. As talked about in a previous article we know that when we hold onto fear, physical problems will begin to manifest.

In short, if we really care about ourselves, rather than lying which will harm us physically, we should do the manly thing and tell the truth.

The Spiritual

I believe there is another consequence we often don’t think of and that is in the supernatural realm. I am a firm believer that everything has a spiritual root and that the things we do in the natural world have a spiritual impact that can further affect the natural world. What I am about to describe is a Christian view and applies to anything that would be deemed sinful or wrong. I have been thinking on this concept for a while lately and the magnitude of the power of sin to corrupt is astonishing.

Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden. Here we have a perfect world, spoken into being, and two perfect humans who walk with their Creator. First, take into your mind the power of God to create matter, the universe, time, space etc. and then to hold it all together, to keep it in unison. Apparently it wasn’t much for him, because he walks with Adam and Eve in the garden and the awesomeness of his creation doesn’t appear to weigh him down or trouble him. We never hear him say, “Oh, Adam, we’ll have to catch up later, the tigers stripes keep falling off.” Yet, to us, the power cannot be fathomed. Now enters something else of great power, sin. The Bible makes it clear that sin not only affects man, but all of creation as well:

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” – Romans 8:20-21

So, through sin we have the unfortunate ability to affect our world. That is some mighty nasty stuff! And there is, yet, another example of the power of sin and how ruthless this stuff is to root out of this world. Whereas God could simply speak all of tangible nature into existence, sin must be overcome with wrath and punishment. In other words, the same being who created all of existence, is going to pour out his wrath on sin and sinners in order to right things. The same God who walked in the gardens of his creation as if it were as natural as you or I putting creamer into our morning cup of coffee, is going to let hell loose on some folks before he sets things right again. He isn’t (or can’t without discrediting himself as holy and good) just wipe out the world and start over as if nothing ever happened.

Rather than disobeying the command to not eat from the forbidden tree, it could have easily been a little white lie that put us all in this situation. It’s a good thing Eve was naked so Adam didn’t have to answer the question, “Does this lion skin make my thighs look big.

What Constitutes a Lie?

I’m surprised to see where my thoughts go next, and I would suspect yours as well. “But people can’t be honest all the time, right? I mean, aren’t there times when it’s alright to lie?” Already I want a way out of this, even if it is just on the notion that everyone lies and that’s just part of being human. Here are a few thoughts on situations where a man might find himself.

Are Secrets Lies?

In short, no, keeping a secret is not the same as lying. A parent might tell their child, “If you don’t tell me (the secret) it’s the same as lying.” which is not actually true. Even God keeps secrets from Jesus (Matt. 24:36). We often put these together because we use deception to order to keep secrets. For example, suppose I have an enemy who says to me, “Tell me what you know or I’ll kill you! If I respond with, “No.” I am not lying. I am refusing to tell him what I know, probably for some good reason. If I were to say, “I don’t know anything.” then I am actually lying. Though, if you and I were on the same side we would not call it a lie. We might say I was clever and tricked the enemy, or lived to fight another day and all that. I might be surprised to see that one show up on the board of wrongs at judgment day. I don’t think I would have much luck in contesting it though.

In a similar way if a friend has told us something in confidence and another friend inquires about it, we might be tempted to say, “I don’t know anything about that.”  making us a liar, and when our friend finds out we did in fact know something about “that” we will lose respect. It would be better to say, “You should talk to so and so about that, if you want to know.” or “I don’t think I could tell you what I know without betraying the confidence of my friend.” Either of those would be truthful and manly ways of addressing the issue.

This doesn’t mean that it is never wrong to keep a secret. That is a problem for prudence and discretion, not honesty. If I know someone is going to commit a crime, in most cases I should not keep that a secret. If I believe it would be best for someone to know a secret, such as a wife knowing that her husband has been cheating on her, I should probably tell it. But, those are taken on a case by case basis and there is no simple right or wrong answer to cover every situation.

Lies that Protect Feelings

austin-omalley_bv689“Those who think it is permissible to tell white lies soon grow color-blind.” – Austin O’Malley

“There is always a way to be honest without being brutal.” – Arthur Dobrin

Say your lady has a new ‘do and your aren’t that partial to it. How do you handle it? A lot of guys would lie and say it looks good when asked for their opinion. We make these compromises so often that we don’t even consider them lying and we dress it up in the clothes of “sparing someone’s feelings” so that the greater good might outweigh the wrong. The problem here is that we are still being dishonest when what we really need is tact.

Tact comes from the Latin tactus which means touch, feeling, handling, or sense of touch. It gives us the picture of handling something with the proper sensitivity it requires. Tact requires a bit of cleverness which requires some mental strength, which is why a lot of people naturally lack it. It is easier to deny or evade than to be tactful, but a man does not always take the easy route.

Is Pretending Lying?

This is a bit of a gray area. Let’s say you are an actor on stage or on film and you are pretending in order to be convincing to the audience. Obviously this isn’t the same as lying, and our guts and brain know the difference. But suppose you are a spy, and you dress up like the enemy and tell them you are someone you are not. More than likely you are doing some lying here. It would be called masquerading whether it is in the context of spying or acting, but whether or not it is wrong depends on the situation.

My wife had a hard time telling the kids about the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause and other such characters because she felt like she was lying to the kids if we pretended they were real. I never felt lied to as a kid about those things, but I can also understand the internal controversy. I say go with your conscience here.

Final Thoughts

I am fairly certain I am not the most honest man I know. I can also say that I have a certain passion for the truth and that has helped me tremendously over the years. I have seen the benefits of honesty in my own life over the years as well in the mistakes of leaders. The man who fails while earnestly seeking the truth and doing what he believed was right may still have his dignity at the end of the day. The man who lies and fails (or lies and succeeds), when he is found out, is often ruined, even if his lies were to protect a greater good. That man may be put back into a leadership position, re-elected for example, but not without admitting the wrong first. Well, at least that is how it ought to be.

I suppose the point is this: No man admires a liar; particularly not the one he sees in the mirror. If you find that you have been dishonest with yourself or others, it’s time to stop digging that pit. We are just shoveling the dirt onto our own backs. It’s a burden you can be liberated from, if you are willing to take the honest path.

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