Honesty: The Best Policy?

When it comes to New Year’s Resolutions, I don’t think much of them.  I think that it is admirable that people take some time to consider ways in which they might improve themselves, but I notice that the attempts are rarely serious.  Furthermore, why does improvement need to start at an admittedly arbitrary time of the year?  True improvement should start immediately and it should take time and contemplate failure.

With that said, I’m terrible at thinking of ways to live my life differently.  It IS hard to make the choices necessary for improvement.  For these reasons (and many others), I have stuck (sort of) with one area: being more honest.  Not just about others or in my interactions with others, mind you.  In fact, being honest with and about yourself is infinitely harder and infinitely more important. Honesty is about admitting when you are terrible at something and embracing that truth.  There is a more desirable corollary: honesty is also about shedding socially acceptable humility and admitting when you are exceptionally talented at something.  You may be wrong about both things, but what matters is that you truly believe it.  

But, like anything else, honesty is a powerful, potent thing.  We are told, from a young age, to eschew lying and live as honest individuals.  Deception, deceit, misdirection…these are what our forebears taught us to reject.  “Be honest” is a frequently repeated maxim to tiny children and full grown adults, alike.  As with many repeated maxims, it’s been overemphasized and taught haphazardly.  

Let’s take a slightly heteronormative example: imagine you are a husband who is happily married/engaged to/involved with a woman who is carrying your baby.  Assume she is 8 months along and resembling a body that is likely to have its own pull of gravity.  She repeatedly worries and agonizes about her figure, worrying that she has ballooned far beyond the normal weight for pregnant women like her.  She asks you repeatedly about how she looks.  Now, if you were being totally honest, you would tell her that she is enormous and looks every bit of it.  If you were being a good partner, you would say nothing of the sort (I would hope).  Now, at this point, I’m sure you will claim that such a situation is involves a “white lie” that has little (if any) harmless effect in its telling.  It is a point well-taken, but it’s not particularly compatible with the emphasis that our society seems to put on honesty.

The truth is, “be honest” is a generally commendable instruction that has more caveats and exceptions than the average product commercial.  Living in a diverse, populous society compels us to be dishonest.  That is not meant as a lamentable commentary – lying is something that we must do on a frequent basis to survive and be kind to those in our lives.  Let’s break it down, slightly:

1.  We generally do not want to hurt others.

2.  Most others (including ourselves) have faults and shortcomings that we are embarrassed of.

3.  Pretending these do not exist is dishonest.

3.  Admitting these exist would be honest.

4.  Admitting these exist would also hurt others (and ourselves).

Ergo, true honesty necessarily involves hurting others and acting (seemingly) in an unkind fashion.  

Whether this is justified in an absolute sense is a matter for another time, but suffice it to say that most people would agree that some balance between the two is necessary.   Where that balance is struck and where that line falls is something that there will never be much agreement on.  

But, perhaps instead of spending all of our time thinking about where to strike the appropriate balance between being unkind and being dishonest, we can try a new tactic.  It sounds a tad egoistic, but hear me out: focus first on mastering honesty with yourself and about who you are (beautiful and hideous parts alike) before worrying about striking that honesty with others.  Liberation from internal insecurity comes first with admitting and accepting your flaws.  If that never happens, you will always be hurt by other people daring to mention them.  If the risk of that hurt occurring remains, we will forever be hesitant and touchy about practicing true honesty with others.  

External honesty and communication can only ever exist if their geneses are rooted in internal honesty.  I do not think that “be honest” will ever be a universally accepted, irrefutable platitude.  With that said, there must be something we can do to avoid teaching children to “be honest, except for in the following 8 million examples”.  

If I’m being totally honest, I enjoy crap food and making fun of people.  See, it’s easy!

Well, 2/3 ain’t bad.

 

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