Monday, January 30, 2012

NOW, HONESTLY! - Aron Smith


Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue
Honesty is hardly ever heard
And mostly what I need from you

When my sisters and I were teenagers, we’d hang out in the family room and play Billy Joel’s album The Stranger over and over again on my dad’s 33⅓ rpm turntable.  I assumed that the song “Honesty,” among others, contained a deep, mysterious meaning that I was not savvy enough to discern.  I figured that Billy must have been betrayed by one or more women with two-timin’ cheatin’ hearts.  I mean, other than that, what’s the big deal about honesty?  Everybody lies.  This is the way the world works, isn’t it?

Most of us figure out at an early age that lying comes with consequences, generally of the nasty variety.  “Tell the truth!” our parents insisted, usually at the most inopportune of moments.  In elementary school, I learned that being untruthful was a violation of the Ninth Commandment, the one about bearing false witness.  That made it a pretty serious offense.

A little later, I learned that there were different types and degrees of lying, that this was not a one size fits all situation.  There were “little white lies,” which were the ones my parents told, and which were not nearly as bad as the black lies in which my contemporaries and I trafficked.  There were “half-truths,” there was “twisting the truth,” there was “fibbing,” and then there was the granddaddy of them all, the “whopper.”

When an adult called someone a “lying SOB,” I knew this was definitely not a compliment.  It was bad enough to be a crybaby, but if you were both a liar and a crier, there was clearly no hope for you.

My dad would tell us that our noses would grow long like Pinocchio’s if we were so misguided as to tell falsehoods.  We knew he wasn’t kidding either, for we had seen the movie.

Early on, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would violate one of God’s commandments, but I soon put two and two together and realized that the purpose of lying was to get you out of trouble — trouble you probably roundly deserved.

“Which one of you is responsible for this?!!”

“Not me,” would be my shoulder-shrugging reply, complete with angelic face expression.

Soon I learned that an often effective way of covering for my lies was righteous indignation.  “Why are you accusing me?” I’d wail.

Then I ran into a big problem.  Just when I thought I was keeping my nose clean, I learned that sometimes you had to lie in order not to hurt another person’s feelings.  “It’s not exactly lying,” I’d be told.  “What would you call it?” was my unspoken question.  I knew enough to keep my mouth shut, as backtalk came with the same punishment as lying, and it was truly a pain in the butt.

Lying came with its own complications, I soon realized.  Not only did you have to remember to keep your story straight so that you didn’t let the truth slip out by accident, but you often had to engage in a second or even a third lie to cover up the first one.  And pretty soon, you couldn’t even remember what the truth was.

I decided that I’d rather have a reputation for being a truth teller.  So I’d admit that I couldn’t go with my friends because my parents wouldn’t let me, even though I knew I’d be accused of being a mama’s boy.  Occasionally, I was even known to tell people that we had cockroaches and that I still wet the bed.  It was embarrassing, yes, but at least it was the truth!  I had taken the high road!  And if everyone was going to make fun of me for that, well then, they’d get theirs eventually.  I gritted my teeth and did my best to ignore the taunts.

My parents tried to teach me that withholding information was not the same thing as lying.  I had the right to remain silent!  I didn’t have to answer every stupid question posed to me, unless of course, the poser was an adult.

But then in school I learned that there were “sins of commission” as well as “sins of omission.”  Sometimes, what you didn’t do or say could be just as bad as the thing you did do or say.  Uh-oh.  This was getting really confusing now.

What if you told a lie accidentally, I wondered?  Sometimes, if you wanted something to be true bad enough, and you pretended to yourself that it was true, you might eventually forget it was really a lie.

I hated when adults lied to me.  I was expected to tell the truth without exception, but adults could say whatever was convenient at the moment.  The worst was when I asked about when a particular event would occur and the answer was “someday.”  “Someday?  Or Sunday?” I’d reply, needing to make sure I didn’t mishear only to get my hopes up for nothing.

“Someday,” I learned, was secret code for “Over my dead body!”  This wasn’t a lie because, at least theoretically, it could happen someday.  Maybe.  Not!  Hahahaha! (Sucker!)

Eventually, I figured out that lying, while not exactly a good thing, was strictly prohibited only for kids.  (Must be a footnote to that 9th Commandment thing.)  It was a part of life that was in the domain of adult life only, kind of like drinking beer or having a job.  Like, for example, using a four-letter word could get you suspended from school, but when my father used the same word, well, that was just Dad.
Worst of all, my parents made it clear to me that lying, like any other sort of bad behavior, was no crime as long as you didn’t get caught.  So if you were going to lie, you had better do a good job.  If you can’t be good, be good at it.

I rebelled against this idea.  An act was either wrong or right.  What was this nonsense about it only being wrong if you didn’t get caught?  My parents accused me of seeing everything in black and white when in reality the world was painted in shades of gray.  I started voicing my opinion that everyone should always tell the truth, no exceptions.  When my father was in a kidding mood, he’d call me “Honest Aron,” a moniker I was proud of.

When I was a high school freshman, my English teacher, who appeared to be an amateur psychologist, encouraged the class to express its feelings as a way of encouraging us to write.  Sometimes he’d present a statement and each student had to agree, strongly agree, disagree or strongly disagree (you could also be noncommittal if the question bothered you).  Most of my classmates liked this stuff, as it was a lot better than reading poetry.  I, however, didn’t.  I wasn’t going to lie and the truth was often embarrassing.  I opted out a lot.  Another tool this teacher used in getting us to write was a book titled Wishes, Lies and Dreams, by Kenneth Koch.  I was offended by the very title of this book.  It didn’t matter if it was a wish, a lie or a dream, any way you cut it, it wasn’t true!  It was nothing but gussied-up lying!  I kept quiet and did my best to play along.

I didn’t care for reading novels; what I loved was non-fiction.  At our local library, I read all 50 volumes of a series on the states of the U.S.  Why would I want to read fiction?  It was all a bunch of damned lies.

When I reached my junior year, I found myself in a psychology class.  The teacher was decidedly “new age”; she was into things like scream therapy and transcendental meditation, and I thought most of it was a lot of baloney.

One day, she had us participate in an exercise in which each student had a certain amount of imaginary money to bid on a whole list of qualities.  I immediately shot my wad on “honesty” knowing I could bid on nothing else.  I won.  I remember having a hard time explaining why honesty was so important to me other than saying that I hated lies and that I was sick of people lying to me.

I look back on those days and wonder whether I was on the right track or not.  What does it say about us as a people when the president lies to us?  Is it any wonder that we have been facing a plague of identity theft?  If it’s no longer convenient to be me, I’ll just be you for a while and max out your credit card, thank you very much.

As I gained more life experience, I abandoned my honest ways and became pretty good at lying.  I’d apply for a job that was way beyond me.  “Absolutely I have experience using your software!”

If the cashier was a young kid who became flustered, and maybe couldn’t make change that well to begin with, I would laugh as I walked out of the store paying a tiny fraction of the correct purchase price.  If I am smart and you are dumb, then I deserve to be the winner!

Of course, this came back to bite me eventually.  One night, when I was living with my sister and her husband and kids, I went out to the grocery store to pick up a few items.  The cashier gave me back an extra $20 bill in change.  When I was out in the parking lot, another employee ran after my shopping cart, yelling that I needed to give back the extra twenty.  I made a face at him and told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.  A liar I was.  And then I drove back to the house and regaled my brother-in-law with the story of how I had “gotten over” on that clerk and that store.  He was shocked.  He asked that I never tell such a story in his home again, as it was a terrible example for his children.

These days I am more or less reformed.  I give back extra change I receive.  If I find something, I attempt to locate the owner.  And I don’t dwell on the subject of honesty all that much anymore.  Until one day recently, that is, when I was sitting in a mandatory training class at work.  The HR director was teaching a course on ethics, and had us consider a number of ethical dilemmas.  Would we accept a gift from a friend if we knew she had taken it without authorization from her place of work?  What if the friend admitted she took it but said it was no big deal because everyone did it and that it was expected?

There was a printed list of statements for us to examine.  The one that struck me right between the eyes was “Honesty is just not that important to me.”  At that moment, it hit me that this is exactly how I was raised.  Honesty was just not that important if you were an adult.  And I was horrified.  I had looked in the mirror and I had seen my reflection clearly.  Lying had become a part of my life; I expected that others would lie to me if convenient, and I wasn’t too upset if I ended up lying to them.

But this wasn’t the type of person I wanted to be!  Remember “Honest Aron?”  Honesty really is important to me!  And if it isn’t, then I am a worse person than even I could ever have imagined.  I realized that no convenience is worth lying when you consider the aspersions cast on one’s character by a reputation for untruthfulness.  And what kind of life is it when we can’t believe anyone or anything?

Billy Joel was right.  Honesty is mostly what I need from you.  And mostly what you need from me.

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