So what does it mean to be honest? The word is used in a variety of ways, meaning truthful, genuine, real, marked by integrity, fair, straightforward, sincere, upright. It can be used to describe something that is humble and plain, or reputable and respectable. The word itself comes from the Latin word for honor, opening a whole new semantic can of worms: good name, public esteem, reputation, recognition, privilege. To “do someone honor” means to show deference to them, in respect of their position in society.
In the midst of that swirl of meanings that lead to trails of implications, what do I mean by honesty? For the moment, and for the sake of my own mental clarity, I am focusing on the idea that honesty means the unending process of searching for truth, both in myself and in the world I live in. Truth that shines a light on deception and confusion, clearing a space for unflinching assessment of a situation that can lead to real, achievable, meaningful steps toward goals. Honesty requires a clear, still space within myself in order to be seen, felt, heard—lived.
So, to be honest, I didn’t spend much dedicated time this week to meditating on the concept of honesty in any coordinated fashion. Mostly I pondered for a moment or two in the spaces between practical efforts to “get things done.” Still, those moments of intuition can be little beacons to guide me into deeper realms of thought.
There are mundane, daily life sorts of “tests of honesty” we all face. For instance, in order to manage my weight, I have learned that tracking everything I eat each day is a fundamentally helpful tool. I have an app on my phone where I can record it all in minute detail (both food and exercise) with daily totals for calories consumed vs. additional calories expended. I am usually quite honest in my recording of activities. The extent of my honesty can be measured by the scale I stand on each morning and the fact that the numbers on it have gradually gone down. Sometimes, however, when I am feeling tired or anxious or crabby, I find myself “fudging” a bit on the numbers I record. Was that serving of brown rice really ¾ of a cup or was it a whole cup? Did I drink 6 ounces of red wine or fill the cup up to 8 ounces? If I allow myself a little leeway in the tally, the total at the end of the day might look a little better, making me feel a little more competent in this lifelong effort to improve my health. The next morning, however, I will stand on the scale again and (given a bit of variance for water weight), the number of the truth will be shine up at me.
Why do I play around with the accounting of my day? There is no rational reason to do so. The answer has much more to do with the emotional side of honesty: I want to see myself (and be seen by others) as someone who can accomplish the goals I set out to meet, someone who has the answers to these confounding riddles of life. I want to be in charge of my life—or at least pretend that I am.
Pretending can take me only so far, but it can be a fun, comforting ride down the slope while it lasts. Eventually I have to get out and trudge back up the hill, get on with the real, genuine and honest steps that make up the journey of my life. I think it is through these little practices of leading an honest life that I build up the skills and willpower to be honest in more trying circumstances. When I have the choice between speaking truth to power or holding back, I speak my mind as clearly as I can. When I have the choice between speaking truth to pain or hiding from it, I choose to speak words of comfort that come from my heart. And, in doing so, I feel a little bit more genuine and respectable.