It’s not always easy to be honest. Sometimes it seems impolite. Why not tell a little lie, or avoid telling the whole truth, to protect someone’s feelings? Other times it seems much more costly in terms of our reputation, finances, or influence. Why not tell a big lie, or make up a whole new story, to protect our own interests and / or the interests of others? Then we have those who are paid to lie in the name of “intelligence” or “national security.” Honesty is a coveted yet complicated value and today’s Provision hopes to sort out some of the nuances. Let me know your thoughts after you read through to the end.
As I write this, the magnitude of the devastation and destruction of the earthquake or temblor in Haiti is becoming painfully clear. Millions of people have been impacted or displaced, fatalities are in the tens of thousands, and the infrastructure of the country is on life support. And that’s only for starters. In situations like this, things get worse before they get better. Coming on the heels of last week’s Provision, “Do not kill,” I am struck by the contrast between our human moral codes and the amorality of nature. Nothing can do more harm, in an instant, than natural disasters.
My heart goes out to the Haitian people. In the wake of 9/11, where more than 3,000 people died through human intervention, many people in the USA responded with donations of blood and money. I know I did. The scope of what’s happening in Haiti • a country whose population is about the same size as New York City — makes 9/11, or even Hurricane Katrina, pale in comparison. If you have not already done so, I would urge you to empathize and act. Four ways to do that, among many other charities, are through the Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation, Global Giving, and Partners In Heath. I encourage you to make it so.
Empathy and action are not bad mantras when it comes to our current series on Guidelines for Living. Different iterations of “The Ten Commandments” phrase things in different ways and assign different priorities to their key concepts, but empathy and action are universal. We are called to feel each other’s pains and bear each other’s burdens, not to kill each other. Violence just adds fuel to the fire when it comes to death and destruction. There’s enough of that in nature already.
Beyond prohibitions regarding killing, various versions of “The Ten Commandments” also proscribe lying. What a different world it would be if people never killed or lied to each other! That is, in fact, a fantasy worth imagining. John Lennon did that in 1971, with the release of his second solo album, “Imagine.” In what became his signature tune, he invited the world to “imagine all the people living life in peace.” “Nothing to kill or die for,” “no need for greed or hunger,” just “all the people living for today” as one.
How might you imagine what the world would look like if the following “commandments” regarding honesty were truly internalized and followed?
- Be honest.
- Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- Be truthful and honest at all times.
- Be honest and fair in one’s interactions.
- Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
- The right to freedom of expression.
Once again, each of these variations have something to teach us when it comes to our own values and approaches in life. They also pose as many challenges to live by as last week’s admonition to avoid killing. We live in a world where honesty is not the only policy. Indeed, many agencies, organizations, and individuals rise and fall on their ability to tell and to sniff out lies. Much that goes on in the name of “intelligence” and “national security” is actually about gathering, evaluating, understanding, and disseminating deceptive information.
“To lie is human,” it has been said, “to not get caught is divine.” That adage does not reflect the havoc wrecked in the wake of human conniving. It is the essence of warfare to gain tactical, strategic, and technological superiority over one’s enemies. That includes the ability, as we have seen recently and all too tragically, to lure your opponent into vulnerable positions through the dissemination of disinformation. Yet this is not the way to a more wonderful world. It’s better to be honest, in the deepest sense of the word:
- Be honest. This is the most interior of all senses. Honesty at this level has to do with our own, inner relationship to the truth. Are we honest with ourselves? Do we exaggerate, minimize, or overlook things? What are we willing to face and what are we willing to ignore? That thought crosses my mind every time I hear about a politician, a celebrity, or a sports star who has been living a double life. I’m less interested in the gossip and more interested in how these people were living with themselves. What were they telling themselves? How could they present themselves one way to some people (the public, their partners, etc.) and another way to other people. Until and unless we have full disclosure with ourselves, there is no way to hold ourselves accountable with others.
- Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. I like the specificity that comes by the inclusion of the word “neighbor.” It helps to remember that honesty concerns the person next door, the person in the next cubicle, the person lying next to us in bed, or the person on the other end of the phone. Even when we are mad at them. Even when we suspect they might not be telling the truth. More often than not, honesty comes down to the details. “False witness” is another interesting concept. That connects honesty with courtroom proceedings where people swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” That’s certainly one time when honesty is always the best policy; in case after case, the cover up does more damage than the crime.
- Be truthful and honest at all times. This version makes honesty an absolute moral injunction: at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances. Such wording allows no room for grey areas, like the proverbial lie to protect someone from physical violence (as many did in response to the horrors of N•zi Germany). Notwithstanding such extremities, where most people are willing to grant exceptions, this version calls into question the many rationalizations we use to justify “little lies.” If no one will be hurt, if no one knows, or if no one is looking, then why not take the easy way out, the way that will make us look good, or the way that will give us the biggest benefit? Such utilitarian rationalizations represent a slippery slope that this commandment eschews.
- Be honest and fair in one’s interactions. Both this version and the next start to wrap other concepts, in this case “fairness,” around being honest. It’s easy to see how “honesty” and “fairness” are closely related. It is often unfair to be dishonest. When the credit card company makes a mistake in its favor, how quickly do we call to straighten things out? When they make a mistake in our favor, do we bother to call at all? “Honest and fair” holds us to the highest of standards. It makes clear not only that we are truthful, but also that we are to be truthful in the service of higher ideals such as fairness. By introducing the concept of fairness, we end up with latitude that is often appropriate in the conduct of human affairs. The key is to hold that standard universally, for one and all.
- Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect. Here we throw “love, faithfulness, and respect” into the mix with “honesty.” Of all the formulations, this version is the most situational. There is no absolute standard here; there is rather the broad recognition that “honesty” should serve the interests and welfare of our fellow human beings. That is why so many people around the world are rallying to help the people in Haiti. Through empathy and action we seek to treat those who suffer, especially those who suffer through no fault of their own, with “love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect.”
- The right to freedom of expression. It’s interesting that the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not include a right to honesty, at least not by that name. In fact, it never even uses the word “honesty.” Article 19, however, does specify that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
I guess that means we have the right to lie, if we want, without interference from others. Just because we have the right to do something does not, however, make it a good thing to do. We must exercise carefully our “right to freedom of expression.” Dishonest propaganda is a tool of repressive regimes and opposition movements around the globe. We may have the right to express such opinions, but the other principles of the Declaration would call into question any expression or act that would undermine the “inherent dignity” and “inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
That, in the end, is the bottom line when it comes to honesty. In his poem, Auguries of Innocence, William Blake put it this way: “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” In other words, what interests are we seeking to serve? At our best, we seek to connect honesty with other life-giving values such as love, faithfulness, fairness, and respect. Instead of tearing down people we seek to build them up. When that becomes our framework and guiding light, when honesty represents not only what we say and do but also who we are, then it becomes easier to carry ourselves with integrity through the many vagaries and temptations of life.
It also becomes more compelling. How often have we failed to “speak the truth in love” because we couldn’t find the right words or perhaps didn’t have the energy or courage to deal with the consequences? Yet consternation and laziness are no excuse when it comes to honesty. Honesty recognizes the spiritual value of our relationship to the truth and it challenges us to live accordingly at all times. Before proceeding we may need to think deeply about what is true, noble, right, pure, honorable, and lovely, but it is not beyond anyone’s ability to do so and then to make life better for all.
Coaching Inquiries: What standards do you hold yourself to when it comes to honesty? How strict are you when it comes to never telling a lie? How would you like to enhance your relationship with the truth? Who could become your “honesty buddy” in life and work?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
I have so enjoyed your short and brief, but significant, Provisions at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. May your year be blessed for all of you and your loved ones!
Happy New Year. Thank you for this week’s thoughts on “Do Not Kill.” Also loved the harmonica idea as a breathing exercise! Thank you for all the empathy, support, and assistance you have shown my husband. May you be as happy and healthy as is possible in this moment. May you be well and live with ease.
It would surely be a step forward if we could at least start with do not kill human beings. Most folks in our nation seem to have a clear appreciation that ‘terrorists• should not kill us. How about if we could just grow from that brilliant insight and determine that we will not only refrain from killing •us• but also be sure not to kill ‘them.• If we truly do not exclude anyone when we pray •give us this day our daily bread• we•re well on our way to realizing that we need to find better ways to solve problems than to kill the irritating , often violent, party.
I was interested in your comments about the •Healing Harmonicas.• I am asthmatic, as are/have been several other people in my family, including my grandfather and his father (who died of asthma-related causes at 30 years of age.) My grandfather learned as a Boy Scout to play the harmonica, and I have happy childhood memories of him playing the harmonica and telling me stories. Your comments made me wonder about the connection between his love of playing harmonica and his relatively healthy life. Thanks.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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