Honesty may be the best policy, but as we all know, it’s also really, really hard. It’s so easy to tell a little white lie to spare someone’s feelings or to deflect responsibility. And maybe when the stakes are low, this isn’t so bad. But at what point do the little lies add up to a dishonest life? At what point does our identity begin to fracture under the weight of dishonesty? And what about when the stakes are higher? Honesty may be hard, but it is important. And so, it deserves some thought as part of this lengthy series on character traits, the good fruit our lives can bear.
According to the VIA Institute on Character, “If Honesty is your top strength, you are a straightforward person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way. You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a “real” person.” They continue: “This strength involves accurately representing your internal states, intentions, and commitments, both publicly and privately.” So, there are two sides to honesty: honesty with others, and honesty with oneself. In other words, honesty involves truthfulness and integrity.
Without honesty, relationships are impossible, and bad situations are allowed to fester. Without truthfulness, there is no legitimate feedback or opportunity to make amends. Without integrity, we cannot know who we really are. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously put it: Live not by lies!
It is no surprise then, that honesty is an important value in all major faith and wisdom traditions. Christianity is no exception. One of the Ten Commandments prohibits bearing false testimony. Similarly, Jesus tells us to let our yes be yes and no be no — a call to integrity without recourse to oaths or hyperbole. In a list of good fruit, Paul lists “truthful speech” together with other good fruit such as knowledge, patience, kindness, and love (2 Cor 6.6-7). On the flip side, Jesus refers to Satan as the ‘devil’ — diabolos, one who accuses and sows confusion — and as “the father of lies” (Jn 8.44). It’s actually possible to view the entirety of the Christian life as a quest for radical honesty, with God and oneself. In this perspective, honesty is the heart of repentance: to see and acknowledge our true condition. This is a good, true, and beautiful process, but it’s unquestionably hard and uncomfortable work.
Because honesty can be so uncomfortable for us, it’s easy to slip into its pathology of absence: phoniness. In fact, most of us exist in this state much of our lives, projecting some desired image onto the world rather than being ourselves. As Ryan M. Niemiec and Robert E. McGrath, two of the psychologists involved in the VIA project, note:
“Our minds are quick to deflect blame, protect us from painful feelings, minimize embarrassing truths, and offer clever ways to evade the full truth. We use disclaimers, exaggerations, and rationalizations to protect our self-image” (The Power of Character Strengths (2019), 116).
If we aren’t careful, this can slip into the opposite of honesty, outright deceit. This can involve lying to others, misrepresenting who we are or what we think, or lying to ourselves by minimizing or rationalizing our behaviour and the impact it has on on our life and on those around us.
But too much honesty — or honesty misapplied — can be just as damaging. The pathology of excess or ‘shadow’ is oversharing. Being honest without appropriate boundaries isn’t vulnerable, but manipulative. And often “keeping it real” is just an exercise in distraction from what is really going on, an elaborate smokescreen or decoy. Similarly, honest negative feedback can be incredibly hurtful if not given wisely. Just as last week we saw that curiosity without being tempered by wisdom and caution can be dangerous, so too does honesty need to be tempered with wisdom and human care. The word choice is important here, since temperance, wisdom, and humanity are three of the other virtues, or groups of character traits, in the VIA framework. We need to use our other traits to use honesty well.
So, what are some ways we can improve or increase our honesty? Here are a few ideas:
- Ask your colleagues for honest feedback about your work;
- Honour your commitments — be reliable and follow through;
- Own up to what you really want;
- Clarify your values;
- When you see that you have lied, think through your motivations for doing so: what were you trying to hide or protect and why?
- Take responsibility for your mistakes;
- Consider who your role model is for integrity; what is it about them that inspires you?