On Being Honest

We’re always told that honesty is the best policy, but, as an attorney, I’d like a look at the fine print.

We start our honesty indoctrination early, teaching kids that George Washington could not tell a lie and admitted to chopping at his father’s cherry tree with his hatchet. The irony, of course, is that this life lesson on honesty is a lie. Washington never did such a thing.

Next, we expose the kids to Pinocchio, who suffered the embarrassment of a growing nose every time he fibbed. It doesn’t take much to see right through this whopper. If we could change our bodies by lying, we wouldn’t need plastic surgeons, anti-aging creams, gym memberships, or any of the other zillion products and services we use to chase youth. Moreover, lots of politicians would resemble life-size Mr. Potato Heads assembled by blind chimpanzees.

Finally, we whip out the nuclear bomb: Santa Claus. That’s right. The old dude in the red suit is always watching. He knows when you’re naughty and when you’re nice, and surely not being honest falls under the “naughty” clause, although, again, the attorney in me could argue the other side, for the right hourly fee. I’d add that we may want to reconsider entrusting the morals of our children to a dude who works one day a year, has special skills in breaking into your home, and might be just a little too close to woodland creatures. Hey, I’m just saying.

These are all valid criticisms, but they still don’t identify the biggest problem with our cultural conversation concerning honesty. When we think about this principle, it’s always in the context of honesty with other people, i.e., stealing, deception, fraud. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t get at the most important person in the honesty game: one’s self.

People aren’t honest with themselves, about themselves, for a host of reasons. One big one, though, traces back to the very people who first taught us to be honest: parents and teachers. We teach young people that they can be anything they want to be. Little Billy can be an astronaut, bright-eyed Susie can be President! Maybe, but the fact that Little Billy is in 8th grade and hasn’t move beyond subtraction surely casts serious doubt on his chances to be the first human on Mars. As for Susie, well, her three shoplifting charges probably won’t play well in the primaries.

We tell ourselves and our children these little lies out of good intentions, but an unintended consequence for some is the feeling that they never quite measured up to their potential. That disconnect is fertile ground for self-deception. No one wants to think they’re not a success, and, if it takes a little self-delusion to think you met impossibly set goalposts, well, lots of folks are going to engage in just that.

Being honest with yourself doesn’t require public self-flagellation, but it does require a sincere acknowledgment of mistakes, of limits, and of wrongs. It also requires an inner response to those things, and a candor with others when you see your faults and limits in your friends, family, and coworkers. The slings and arrows of life teach this to most people, but one only need look around to see all the pain suffered by those that don’t clue in.

In many ways, being honest with yourself, about yourself, is more difficult than being honest with others. But, until you can acknowledge and accept that you might not be as smart, as talented, as accomplished, and as overall awesome as you were promised to be, you can’t be the person you were honestly meant to be.

And that’s the truth.