No one develops sound character without a deep reverance for the truth. Unfortunately, we humans have an incredible capacity to deceive. And it’s bad enough that we sometimes lie to each other and about each other. What’s even more insidious, however, and ultimately very detrimental to our character formation, are the many ways in which we are capable of deceiving ourselves.
In my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead, tentatively titled The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life, I discuss how crucial instilling a deep regard for the truth in children is to their character development. Here is what years of experience working with character-impaired individuals has taught me is the fourth “commandment” of sound character development:
Revere the Truth;
It truly will set you free.
Honesty and integrity are the necessary antidotes to the all-too-human tendency to cheat, take short-cuts, or achieve goals through manipulation and deception. That’s why the fourth commandment of sound character development is to revere the truth to the best of your ability. Let a deep reverence for the truth guide you in all your thoughts and actions. This doesn’t mean it’s okay to use the truth as a weapon or to be brutal in your disclosures. You’re not obliged to share every ugly thing you know to be true. And you have no duty to reveal truths that would serve no good purpose whatsoever but to hurt someone. But you must be ever mindful of the temptation to secure what you want or avoid the things you dislike through deception, cheating, and trickery.
Revering the truth means knowing, respecting, and honoring its value and power. It also means forthrightly and humbly acknowledging and then reckoning with our inevitable mistakes. When we appropriately revere truth, we avoid taking shortcuts in life and are willing to earn the good things we desire in an honest and honorable way. This also means that we take the sincere and genuine course even if it’s the more difficult one. By so doing these things, we develop sound character and live responsibly and with integrity.
Deception: The Heart of Manipulation
We live in an age in which respect for the truth is at an all-time low. Almost everyone “pushing” a product, advancing a political point of view, or advocating a cause engages in what pundits call “spin.” Rather than have an honest debate about the things important to us all, we all-too-often seek to persuade by telling half-truths, distorting and misrepresenting the facts, and appealing to the baser instincts of others. This is manipulation pure and simple and comes at the expense not only of our general welfare but also of our personal integrity.
It Pays to Be Honest
The saying “Honesty is the best policy” is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. But the adage had been around for a long time before Lincoln, who said it during an election campaign. In fact, many American statesmen have repeated the axiom. Benjamin Franklin touted it in an edition of his newspaper Poor Richard’s Almanac. George Washington did so in a letter to Benjamin Harrison stressing the importance to a person’s integrity of being just as honest in public statements as in private affairs. Authors and playwrights from the time of ancient Rome to William Shakespeare to Mark Twain have also echoed this timeless message most believe first appeared in an Aesop’s fable:
A woodman was felling a tree on the bank of a river, when his axe, glancing off the trunk, flew out of his hands and fell into the water. As he stood by the water’s edge lamenting his loss, the god Mercury appeared and asked him the reason for his grief. On learning what had happened, out of pity for his distress, Mercury dived into the river and, bringing up a golden axe, asked him if that was the one he had lost. The woodman replied that it was not, and Mercury then dived a second time, and, bringing up a silver axe, asked if that was his. “No, that is not mine either,” said the Woodman. Once more Mercury dived into the river, and brought up the missing axe. The woodman was overjoyed at recovering his property, and thanked his benefactor warmly; and Mercury was so pleased with his honesty that he made the woodman a present of the other two axes.
When the woodman told the story to his companions, one of these was filled with envy of his good fortune and determined to try his luck for himself. So he went and began to fell a tree at the edge of the river, and presently contrived to let his axe drop into the water. Mercury appeared as before, and, on learning that his axe had fallen in, he dived and brought up a golden axe, as he had done on the previous occasion. Without waiting to be asked whether it was his or not, the fellow cried, “That’s mine, that’s mine,” and stretched out his hand eagerly for the prize, but Mercury was so disgusted at his dishonesty that he not only declined to give him the golden axe, he also refused to recover for him the one he had let fall into the stream. Honesty is the best policy.
The moral message of the tale of Mercury and the Woodman is straightforward and clear: among all the many other reasons for being honest, there’s practical value in telling the truth. In the end, unpleasant consequences almost always ensue when one is less than forthright. So when all is considered, it’s simply good policy to be honest. In the end, all lies take their toll. And so it is even with the lies we tell ourselves. Such lies impair our ability to be the kind of person we all have the potential to be. That’s because they keep us from attending to the real issues impeding our growth.
The lies we tell to and about others inevitably bring pain into their lives and impair our relationships. They destroy others’ ability to trust us, and trust is the very foundation of a good relationship. It’s not just bad for us to lie. In the long-run, honesty and integrity pay off — both for us personally and for our relationships. There are bigger-scale consequences as well. Without the confidence that honesty engenders, companies and even governments inevitably fail. But taking the truthful and genuine course is often difficult, requiring courage, commitment, and sacrifice. It’s often simply easier just to lie, con, or cheat. In the short-run, we might score a victory for ourselves, but in the long-run, everyone loses.
Honesty and Character
Dishonesty is at the very heart of character disturbance. Some disturbed characters disregard the truth whereas others have outright disdain for it. And it’s bad enough that disturbed characters cheat, lie, con, and manipulate others wantonly, even when there’s no real necessity to do so. But the fact they’re unwilling or unable to be honest with themselves prevents them from reckoning with their flaws and shortcomings and making the changes they need to make to become better persons. This is not a case of “denial,” (as some misguided therapists have often assumed) unconsciously engaged in as a defense of unbearable emotional pain but rather a stubborn refusal to take the tougher, more noble course to being a decent person.
I’ll have more to say on this “fourth commandment” of sound character development in the coming weeks’ articles. And you can find more on this topic in my books The Judas Syndrome, How Did We End Up Here?, Character Disturbance, and In Sheep’s Clothing. You can also find severl articles on the subject on this and other blogs I write for, including the articles: Lying – Another Look at this Character Defect, Why Some People Lie So Much, and Is Lying the New Epidemic?.
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