I was reading North and South (a dear friend recommended it to me) and at one point in the story Margaret tells a lie to protect her brother from arrest and possibly hanging. It was a simple lie—she said she was not someplace where uncertain witnesses had thought they saw her. But a friend who knew she was there learned of her lie and was shocked. He began to wonder what other aspects of her character he had misjudged. When she knows he knows about her lie, she feels tremendous remorse that she has lost his good opinion.
This sequence of events illustrated for me how valuable honesty was once held. “A man’s word is his bond,” is familiar, as is this quote by Shakespeare: “Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honor, I lose myself.”
When we were first married we lived in Texas at a time when there were no bank branches. Each bank had a central building. At my DH’s work, most of the employees banked at the same bank that the company did. They determined that they could take turns depositing paychecks for each other because of the extra drive time to the bank. But not everyone was trusted to be the courier. They chose my DH for the first time, saying, “Sending it with [him] is like sending it with an armored car.”
His reputation for honesty stayed with him. About two years later, when we were living the life of students, my DH worked as a night manager for a small mom and pop grocery store. The owner, John, took a great liking to my DH and would have had us take over the business (I had become the head checker) if it were still viable, but times were changing and such stores have all but disappeared. However, one day John said to DH, “You’ll never make a great success because you are too honest.”
There were times when my DH struggled with John’s words; times when they seemed to be prophetic. But, like Shakespeare wrote, he believed that if he lost his honor, he lost himself. He determined that he didn’t need to compromise his integrity while running a business to provide for his family. And yes, he was cheated occasionally, but mostly he gained respect and associates that trusted him. And financial success.
People who are not honest, are rarely believed. It is hard to trust them.
Later, in North and South, Margaret’s lie proved to be unneeded, which just added to her torment. But what if it had save her brother’s life? Was it justified? Where do we draw the line? When it’s a matter of saving a life? (I don’t like gray areas. I prefer absolute truths, but I’d like to think I would have been brave enough to hide and lie about Jews in my home during a Nazi occupation.) But what about honesty in business? Relationships? Politics? Day to day choices?
All in all, I think honesty is a value that is slipping away. A handshake as a promise has lost its force. We wonder if a book reviewed by a friend of the author is reliable. We question if the price we are paying at the dentist is fair, or just scaled to get the most from the insurance company. And we give a fussy child “samples” from the bulk bin.
How do we pass on that honesty is the best policy and that when we lose that, we lose part of ourselves?