a priest's musings on the journey

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Perspectives: The Loss of the Virtue of Honesty

Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.
Thomas Jefferson

This could all be a fantasy for me, but I have this idea that once upon time there existed this strong ethic of integrity and truth telling in this country. I guess this idea was imparted to me from my grandfather, who taught me that a person was only as good as his/her name and his/her word. He didn't need a signed contract and a notary public; unless you had lost his trust, he took you at your word. I suppose it is because of him that I highly value honesty. In fact, I might even over-value it. It is one of those foundational core values that define who I am and how I relate, or fall out of relationship, with others.

I am basically a patient, easy-going, forebearing person. I can take a lot of crap from people without getting my feathers ruffled too much (ok forgive the mixed metaphors). But, I can not deal very well with liars. I can forgive, but once someone has lied to me, I always wonder whether or not they are telling me the truth from that moment on. Of course trust can be rebuilt, but it takes time for me.

This entire blog, in fact, is my way of working through the disappointment of catching someone in a lie. Not just a lie; the first lie, to my knowledge, that this person has ever told me. I am disappointed, hurt, and even a bit betrayed. Now I wonder if this person has ever lied to me before? has anything that I have been told *really* been the truth. Of course it was not a major lie; in fact this person probably did not think twice about saying it. Lying has become a socially acceptable practice.

Imagine my frustration; I am a part of a culture (and even a church) that has lost the virtue of honesty. Sure, most people in my life are not likely to blatantly lie to me or anyone else. But, it seems all too easy, even for people who claim to follow the teacher who taught that "the truth shall set you free," to tell "a little white lie." It happens to me all of the time. You ask someone to help you with some task, and instead of saying "No, I don't want to," they make up some bogus excuse. Or you are stood up for a lunch date, and your friend creates some little half truth to cover up their embarrassment for forgetting.

I know some people will think I am just being overly sensitive, but the little white lies and half truths infuriate me more than bald-faced lies, especially when I know the truth already. If I can not trust someone to be honest with me about little, insignificant things, how will I be able to trust them with larger, more complicated issues? I don't know that I would be able to trust them when there is a serious crisis of trust. Those little white lies and half-truths would linger in my mind, haunting me and telling me not to believe the words of this person who has lied to me before.

I think a lot of people tell these little lies because: 1) they do not want to hurt the other person's feelings, 2)they do not want to accept responsibility for their mis-actions, 3) they think no one will ever get hurt from their little lie, because no will ever know the full truth. The problem is, the truth always has a way of revealing itself, and in the end, even the little lies are hurtful. Worse than that, the more one tells even the smallest untruth, the easier it becomes to tell bigger untruths, and finally, one loses the ability to tell the truth at all.

Philosopher Sissela Bok makes this point in her book Lying:

"The failure to look at an entire practice rather than at their own isolated case often blinds liars to cumulative harm and expanding deceptive activities. Those who begin with white lies can come to resort to more frequent and more serious ones....The aggregate harm from a large number of marginally harmful instances may, therefore, be highly undesirable in the end- for liars, those deceived, and honesty and trust more generally."

Don't get me wrong, honesty must be accompanied by grace, mercy and charity. It's just as infuriating to me for people to use the virtue of honesty as a weapon with which to abuse, embarass, and shame others. Of course there are always words- truths- that we are afraid to speak because they come from and lead to painful places. But, lying or uttering a half-truth can never be the solution to such a dilemma. The solution comes in speaking the truth in love; love which respects the dignity and integrity of others enough to entrust them with the truth.

Richard Solomon writes, "The honest man is not so much one who refrains from lying, much less one who resists the temptation to lie because he or she knows that it is wrong to lie; he or she just...does not lie."
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 5:45 PM


Good thoughts, Padre. Good thoughts that need to be said. I'm this way in relationships, I can deal with a lot of personal quirks and short-comings . . . but if a person is dishonest with me, that is what will break me and the relationship in my eyes.
Blogger Jared Cramer, at 8:49 PM  
Coming from a "small lies" background, I found it particularly difficult to get rid of.

Especially when you are raised in an environment which does not emphasize the virtue of honesty, it seems a huge task!

I thank God everyday for having been able of eliminating tremendously this practice in my own life.
Blogger Luiz Coelho, at 6:05 AM  
Same here Luiz and I think growing up gay encourages the lies (not that this is an excuse.)
Blogger toujoursdan, at 6:49 PM  
Honesty is the best policy!
Blogger John the organist, at 6:37 PM  

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