Sunday, January 15, 2017

What does it mean to be honest?

I listened to part of a Fresh Air interview with Daniel Handler, the author of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books yesterday, which got me thinking about honesty.  Handler was discussing how his books have been banned and that some people have complained because his villain does terrible things.  Here is an excerpt:

HANDLER:  And, also, I'm at a loss for how to construct a villain who isn't doing villainous things. If Count Olaf were only doing things that no one would object to, then he really wouldn't be much of a villain. So I'm somewhat nonplussed by that kind of criticism - that, boy, Count Olaf is sure a terrible person. And so I always have to write back and say, well, yes. Yes, he is (laughter). He sure is. Let's catch him.
GROSS: (Laughter).
HANDLER: And a woman once in in Oregon came up to me at a bookstore and said, you know, in one of your books, you teach that it is sometimes necessary to lie. And that seems like a very disturbing lesson to me. Can you name one time when it would be absolutely necessary to lie? And I was so happy that the answer came to me right away, instead of, you know, as it usually does when people say something to you. And then you think three days later, that's what I should've said. Instead, it came right away. And I was able just to turn to her and say, nice sweater.
GROSS: (Laughter).
HANDLER: I'm just really proud of that.
GROSS: (Laughter) What was her reaction?
HANDLER: I think she said thank you.
GROSS: (Laughter).
HANDLER: I'm not sure that the lesson was taught. But at least I was able to sleep at night, knowing that (laughter) I'd been able to say something in response. I mean, of course, you have to lie. And I can't imagine that you would want to teach your child never to lie under any circumstances. That's not going to serve the child well when the child goes to a birthday party and is forced to say whether or not he or she had a nice time.

A short time after hearing this interview, someone came up to me and said, "I know you're honest...." and then asked me a question and wanted my viewpoint.

And these two things got me thinking more about our President-Elect and his tweeting every single thought that comes into his head, which some have suggested is proof that he is honest.

I think honesty is a good thing, but I don't always tell the truth.  I don't tell people exactly what I think of them because sometimes it is not good.  I don't tell people exactly what I think all the time because sometimes I am wrong and only later come to that realization.  I don't always tell the truth because sometimes that would hurt people's feelings and not have the benefit of making anything better.

Next week, I'll be having my high school cottage students compose a persuasive piece on the choice that George makes in the book Of Mice and Men regarding Lennie.  I was uncertain as to how to phrase this assignment because some parents, depending on their level of fundamentalism, would look at his choice as entirely wrong, end of story.

(I'm not saying what his choice is on the off-chance any of my high schoolers have discovered my blog and because if you don't know his choice, then YOU should read Of Mice and Men.)

In a vacuum, his choice is wrong.  There is no question.  It violates a commandment.
But in a world in which sometimes we have nothing but a series of unfortunate choices to make (the presidential election is an example that many people recently experienced), what least bad of all bad choices does a person make?

How do you justify your choice, especially to yourself?  How do you justify your choice if you are discussing it with someone who probably disagrees with your choice?  How do you live your life as a decent person if you only have bad options from which to choose?  How would you explain to God why and how you made your choice?

There are so many issues around which people make hard-line statements---never and always statements.  Such-and-such is always an evil choice.

Abortion is always wrong and evil, for example.  But I know someone who was carrying a pregnancy that very nearly killed her and left her no choice but to terminate it so she could still be a mother to her young child.  I know another woman who had an abortion because her child had such profound birth defects it would not have lived.  I also know another woman who decided to carry her pregnancy to term even though her son had profound birth defects and died 9 hours after delivery.  Each of these women made the best choice they could under the worst possible circumstances.  There wasn't a best choice because all of these women ended up heartbroken, no matter what choice they made.

If I believed the women who had abortions were evil and wrong (which, for the record, I do not believe), being honest with them would be the absolute wrong thing for me to do.  Honesty would do nothing but stir up their pain.  It doesn't really matter what I honestly think because it is not my life.

Being honest doesn't mean being unkind.
Being honest doesn't mean hitting someone in a tender spot with my opinion.

If I am honest with myself, I admit that I do not and cannot know what is right for everyone in all circumstances.

If I am honest with myself, I know that the greatest thing I can do is to treat others as I would like to be treated, and sometimes that means not entirely telling the truth if it does nothing but hurt.  

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