The Deadly Sins Revisited – The Worthlessness of Honesty and Truth
Truth & Honesty = Suffering
We value dishonesty far more than honesty and the search for truth. And why not?
Perhaps – and these things always begin with “perhaps”; it’s known as hedging your bets, folks – perhaps the severest form of diabolism in which a person could become engaged in America today is honesty.
Oh, yes. You heard me correctly; you heard me well; and you have heard me loudly. Nothing will damn you faster in the good ol’ US of A than developing the quaint habit of being honest. Sarcasm, irony, parody, and satire are probably close runners-up, but I am of the learned opinion that honesty will do one in faster than even these in the eyes of the community, one’s family – and shall we forget complete strangers?
No one, gentle reader, knows you better than a complete stranger. And their knowledge insures that they can safely remain a stranger to you and never have to risk the messy business of taking you seriously or looking for the best possible interpretation of your words and motives. Not only that, but they are allowed to spread their poisoned beliefs about your character far and wide, thus magnifying the nature of your myriad sins… if you have been so foolish as to have admitted any in a public forum.
And let’s face it: If you are honest, and you talk about yourself at all, you are hardly perfection personified and it will come out. Now, most of us are happy, even proud of the fact we are not perfect. But in saying we aren’t “perfect,” we usually mean we stole a paperclip from work… once. We broke the speed limit and got a ticket. When we curse, we occasionally say words a bit rougher than “Gosh darn it.” If we’re really frisky, we might admit someone else as much as wrote a paper for us when we were in school and too lazy or unskilled to do a good job on the editing.
We say these things out loud and everyone nods knowingly. “Well, me too,” they commiserate just before the both of you, quite happy in the relative lack of severity of your crimes against humanity, feel free to talk about Sally the possible adulteress or Sam the suspected drunkard or Wanda the well-known wallower in irreligiosity or Wilbur the prevaricator of presidential proportions.
Oh, yes. You are much better, or at least not quite as bad, as Sally, Sam, Wanda and Wilbur. They are Not One Of You and you are not of their ilk. And matters will be all the worse, the sin all the blacker, if silly Sally came straight out and said she’d committed adultery, or stupid Sam admitted to his difficulties with the sauce, or weird Wanda shrugged and told us that she has no religious faith to speak of, or if worthless Wilbur nodded and said he’s a liar.
Except, of course, we couldn’t believe Wilbur – he’s a liar.
Long story shorter, when most of us admit we aren’t perfect, what we really mean is that we aren’t quite as perfect as we could be. Relatively speaking, we are in pretty good shape and our butts still fit fine into The Seat of Judgment. Those sinners, on the other hand… well, they’re flawed, ruined, evil, terrible, horrible people, and man, isn’t it so much fun to talk about them and spread rumors, especially if they have openly played stupid and given you the ammunition?
Sinners are a hell of a lot more fun to talk about and obsess over than saints, especially since we know that a good, honest sinner needs to be severely punished. As God may be a bit slow in the department this week, as He often seems to be, maybe we could score some brownie points by helping the Almighty with His work by playing Junior Accusers and Minor Inquisitors and Little Hands of Vengeance! All the better if we can work it to our advantage in some way.
Oh, the joy.
Fools: Who Needs Them?
Only the most foolish of the wicked admit to their wounded souls aloud… except maybe in a confessional, and who knows if it’s always safe then? What, you think the parish priests, after a few brandies and sherries, perhaps aren’t giggling with one another about your last escapade with Mary Margaret in her knee socks (and little else) under the bleachers last week when you were supposed to be at catechism class?
The boys in the dog collars will never look at you the same way again, lad. But I digress.
Oh, you may be thinking, "How wrong you are, you silly man. How utterly cynical, how sarcastic."
Point taken, gentle reader -- but bear with me. You think the world values honesty? Do you believe you do in any unqualified way? Or, rather, do you value honesty -- when and only when you benefit from it?
Experience has taught me that, maybe, this is the way of the world: to pay lip sevice to fine-sounding things when, in reality, we truly believe these things to be the tarriest and stickiest of sins.
Once there was a man and the man was a self-confessed murderer. He hunted down people whose beliefs offended him and participated in their willful deaths. And he was very honest about it, perhaps, ironically, even paradoxically, proud of his infamy. He was known to call himself "the chiefest of sinners." Not just the worst, not a terrible person... no, none of those sorts of things, but the chief of the sinners, the ringleader, the top of the list. He had that gangster mentality going for him, that's for certain, like a rapper brag-singing his bloody exploits in the hood.
Many people, needless to say, didn't like this fellow. To be certain, he could have kept his mouth shut and probably few would have cared and fewer would have known because he wasn't killing people who were exactly the most valuable members of his society, but, nooooo -- our evil friend had to write these things down and pass the letters around, even speak about his exploits aloud.
His name was Saul. Later he changed his name to Paul. Many people of the Christian faith call him "Saint Paul" and his letters form the brunt of the so-called New Testament. He admitted his sins aloud, and often, his "thorn in the flesh," which could have been anything, the stoning of the first martyr, St. Stephen, his hatreds, his prejudices, his intolerance, his temper. If you are a Christian, perhaps you are willing to give the old boy a pass -- he is a saint, after all, and to not do so seems somewhat dangerous. But If you give such a man your mercy, a murderer, a man who confessed his sins to be worse than anyone's, why in the world would you dare judge anyone else... ever?
Especially if their life is an open and honest struggle with the flesh, with temptaions, with troubles?
You'll forgive St. Paul, who does not need your forgiveness, while you look for adultery and fornication and lying and drug addiction and every speck of imperfection possible in those who are living around you?
My, my. The courage that lack of magnanimity embodies is unfathomably admirable.
And then there was this other man: He was a Jew, one born into the strongest version of monotheistic religion in the world, a religion in which the people had suffered greatly and died for thousands of years rather than practice anything that vaguely resembles pagan polytheism, a religion of hundreds of intricate and demanding commandments designed to make one mindful of God and one’s neighbor and oneself.
So, this man proceeded to bend the commandments and reinterpret them – he broke the Sabbath and said the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. He lost his temper, he seemed irritated with the denseness of his follower’s minds more than once. He associated with whores and adulteresses, he hung out with tax collectors, Romans..., the rich, the poor, the lepers, the demon-possessed and the insane; he healed the daughter of a pagan woman and treated her as an equal; he forgave a woman who was ritually unclean because of her menstrual flow for unlawfully touching him – and he healed her.
As a matter of fact, for a single adult man, a rabbi, he sure did freely associate with a lot of women in a day when people’s minds immediately would have assumed that he was having sexual relations with a few of them.
He capped off his career by claiming to be, somehow, The Son of God, united with God Himself, in some way. His entire life openly and honestly flew in the face of his culture’s expectations, he claimed in some way to be divine and said things that sounded polytheistic to his people’s ears… knowing that it would.
Then he was executed as the lowest of criminals and the last act of his life, aside from praying the Psalms, was to forgive a thief and accept him as a brother.
How honest this man was. How much trouble he caused. How quickly he was put to death because people could not bear his speech and actions. His name was Jesus. If his aim was to stay alive and well-respected on planet Earth, he sure went about it in a strange way… because honesty is our most feared sin.
The Two Degrees of Honesty
I think there are two degrees of the sin, though – a forgivable or understandable degree, and then the type that is despised.
The understandable sort of honesty, the sort we’ll let people away with, is the honesty of the naïve. Or, to be blunt, idiot honesty. When someone makes confessions openly simply because they don’t know any better, when someone speaks their mind because their minds, really, have little in them, we are comfortable with that. Sometimes it is humorous, sometimes it is embarrassing – sometimes we are embarrassed for the speaker. It is akin to hearing a 12 year-old girl tell us in hushed tones of her first serious crush and it is on Brad Pitt.
This is harmless. We tend to know it. We roll our eyes at it and let it go.
It is the second degree of honesty that is unforgivable.
It involves honesty married to the search for truth.
Those whose lives are devoted to Other Things may think a life spent in pursuit of truth is a clean and easy affair. Maybe there are images of the professor’s office or the white lab coats of the scientist. Nothing could be more wrong.
A life in the service of truth is not one, to begin with, that will necessarily locate truth. In fact, much more error will be encountered than truth. It will be, then, a life that is not fearful of falsity, because falsity will have to be closely examined, sifted through, in hopes of straining out the single grain of clean reality that may – may – be hiding there.
A better metaphor for the search for truth than the antiseptic laboratory experience or the quiet university office is mining. Mining is a filthy business, a dangerous business, a violent business, exhausting. And the search for truth is like mining – mining the experiences of life, a life lived in the world, in the shadows and excrement and blood, the muck, the stupidity of oneself and others; it is mining carried on in bars and in the churches and synagogues, in the alleyways, on the mountains and in the reeking sewers.
Truth, if it is to be heard and heard entirely, as completely as possible, will be found in the course of a harsh journey most would find repulsive; truth will speak to us in silent prayers and in the nauseating scream of a hangover, in a Bach fuge and in The Clash’s angry cries. We will see it in the bright eyes of children and in the dying gaze of an elderly woman, departing the world alone and unvisited in a nameless nursing home.
There is no place truth may not be living and where the crooked path of one in search of it may not be led.
And then comes the burden. The Responsibility. One who lives this life, the life of the miner for truth, if he thinks he has found some small fragment of it, is driven to share it… not for personal aggrandizement, not for fame, and certainly not for money, but because it is precious, it was hard-won, and it does not belong to anyone, but all of us.
Honesty is required to report what the seeker has seen, and what the seeker has seen is inevitably unpleasant. It has its darkness. He appears as a miner covered in filth; he reeks; he is not fit for proper company. No, you would not invite his excrement-coated form into your house, no you would not want his sweat and blood on your furniture; no, you could not long stand his grimy hands on your body or his roughened voice whispering in your ear – less would you want him to associate with your loved ones.
Because he is going to talk, he is going to speak honestly, he is going to report all he has seen in the wonderful, beautiful, terrible, horrifying world; he is going to expose his life, his living encounters with reality, his failings, his imperfections, his miseries – he will reveal things that you would rather not hear of at all.
Truth is dangerous, truth is uncomfortable and disconcerting. It is unpleasant. It is not polite. It is what it is regardless of our expectations and desires… and we live to keep our expectations and desires unscathed, no matter how unrealistic or false. We live for our lies, and lies are virtuous. Honesty about truth is damnable, anathema.
It destroys every part of our lives based on falsehood.
The Destructive Nature of Honesty
So we despise them that try to search for truth and speak aloud about it. In some places and times, such people were burned at stakes or shot or sent to concentration camps and gulags. They have been censored, they have been shunned, they have been socially ruined. In our private lives, though, we simply destroy the people in our minds and with our tongues. We do not seek to understand what they say and why they say it – we focus on their wickedness and blot out their names from the Book of Life with our black bile.
One wonders whether there was ever a moment when our civilization was not based upon lying and the value of lies. But that is of less interest, maybe, than whether an individual person values a comfortable and plentiful dishonesty more than a painful and rare flash of truthfulness and honesty. One can do little about civilizations, but one is responsible for oneself and only oneself.
The question, though, is whether honesty is worth the price. And all things have their price. Honest people searching for truth learn this early, or so I hear.
We know what sort of people they are, though. The last thing we wish to do with them is listen.
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