This Matter of Honesty – Aug 1961

The problem of honesty touches nearly every aspect of our lives . There are , for example , the widespread and amazing phenomena of self – deception . There are those rather dreadful brands of reckless truth – telling , which are so often lacking in prudence and love . Then there are those countless life situations in which nothing less than utter honesty will do , no matter how sorely we may be tempted by the fear and pride that would reduce us to half – truths or inexcusable denials . Let’s first see what self – deception can do to one’s integrity . Well remembered is the comfort I used to take from an exaggerated belief in my own honesty . My New England kinsfolk had thoroughly taught me the sanctity of all business commitments and contracts . They insisted that “ a man’s word is his bond . ” I delighted in the Lincoln story which tells how Honest Abe once walked six miles to return the six pennies he had overcharged a poor woman at his grocery . After this rigorous conditioning , business honesty always came easy , and it stayed with me . Even in Wall Street , where I landed years later , I never flimflammed anyone . However , this small fragment of easy – won virtue did produce some interesting liabilities . I was so absurdly proud of my business standards that I never failed to whip up a fine contempt for those of my fellow Wall Streeters who were prone to shortchange their customers. This was arrogant enough , but the ensuing self – deception proved even worse . My prized business honesty was presently converted into a comfortable cloak under which I could hide the many serious flaws that beset other departments of my life . Being certain of this one virtue , it was easy to conclude that I had them all . For years on end , this prevented me from taking a good look at myself . This is a very ordinary example of the fabulous capacity for self – deception that nearly all of us can display at times . Moreover , the deception of others is nearly always rooted in the deception of ourselves . As further illustrations , two extreme cases come to mind . One shows self – delusion in a very obvious form — obvious , that is , to all but the victim himself . The other depicts the more subtle brand of self – delusion , from which no human being can be entirely exempt . One of my good friends used to be a safecracker . He told me this revealing tale . Said he : “ You know , Bill , I used to think I was a kind of one – man revolution against society . All over the world I could see the ‘ have – nots ‘ taking it away from the ‘ haves . ’ This seemed very reasonable . After all , those damn ‘ haves ‘ just wouldn’t share their wealth . The revolutions that took it away from them were apt to get a lot of applause . But guys like me , who could also make those ‘ haves ‘ share their wealth , got no slick glad hand . After a while I figured this out : the plain fact was that nobody liked burglars . Revolutions , yes — but burglars , no . Anyway , I couldn’t see anything wrong about blowing safes , excepting getting caught . Even after years in jail , I still couldn’t see it . When AA showed up , I slowly began to get it through my head that there were good revolutions and bad ones . Bit by bit it dawned on me how I’d completely fooled myself . I could see that I had been pretty crazy . How I could have been that dumb , I’ll never be able to explain in any other way . ”

Now I have another AA friend , a good and gentle soul . He recently joined one of the great religious orders , one in which the friars spend many hours a day in contemplation . So my friend has plenty of time to take his inventory . The more he looks , the more unconscious self – deception he finds . And the more astonished he becomes at the elaborate and devious excuse – making machinery by which he had been justifying himself . He has already come to the conclusion that the prideful righteousness of “ good people ” may often be just as destructive as the glaring sins of those who are supposedly not so good . So he daily looks inward upon himself and then upward toward God , the better to discover just where he stands in this matter of honesty . Out of each of his meditations there always emerges one dead certainty , and this is the fact that he still has a long way to go . Just how and when we tell the truth — or keep silent — can often reveal the difference between genuine integrity and none at all . Step Nine of AA’s program emphatically cautions us against misusing the truth when it states : “ Made direct amends to such people wherever possible , except when to do so would injure them or others . ” Because it points up the fact that the truth can be used to injure as well as to heal , this valuable principle certainly has a wide – ranging application to the problem of developing integrity . In AA , for instance , we talk a great deal about each other . Provided our motives are thoroughly good , this is not in the least wrong . But damaging gossip is quite something else . Of course , this kind of scuttlebutt can be well grounded in fact . But no such abuse of the facts could ever be twisted into anything resembling integrity . It can’t be maintained that this sort of superficial honesty is good for anyone . So the need to examine ourselves is very much with us . Following a gossip binge we can well ask ourselves these questions : 

“ Why did we say what we did ? Were we only trying to be helpful and informative ? Or were we not trying to feel superior by confessing the other fellow’s sins ? Or , because of fear and dislike , were we not really aiming to damage him ? ” This would be an honest attempt to examine ourselves , rather than the other fellow . Here we see the difference between the use of the truth and its misuse . Right here we begin to regain the integrity we had lost . 

Sometimes , though , our true motives are not so easily determined . There are times when we think we must reveal highly damaging facts so that we may stop the depredations of certain evildoers . “ All for the good of AA ” — or what have you — now becomes our cry . Armed with this often false justification , we righteously press our attack . True enough , there may be a genuine need to remedy a damaging condition . True enough , we may have to make use of some unpleasant facts . But the real test is how we handle ourselves . We must be ever so certain that we are not pots who call the kettles black . Therefore it is wise if we pose ourselves these questions : “ Do we really understand the people who are involved in this situation ? Are we certain that we have all of the facts ? Is any action or criticism on our part really necessary ? Are we positive that we are neither fearful nor angry ? ” Only following such a scrutiny can we be sure to act with the careful discrimination and in the loving spirit that will always be needed to maintain our own integrity . 

Now here is another aspect of the honesty problem . It is very possible for us to use the alleged dishonesty of other people as a most plausible excuse for not meeting our own obligations . I once had a spell of this myself . Some rather prejudiced friends had exhorted me never to go back to Wall Street . They were sure that the rampant materialism and double – dealing down there would be sure to stunt my spiritual growth . Because this sounded so high – minded , I continued to stay away from the only business that I knew . When finally my household went quite broke , I woke up to the fact that I hadn’t been able to face the prospect of going back to work . So I returned to Wall Street after all . And I have ever since been glad that I did . I needed to rediscover that there are many fine people in New York’s financial district . Then , too , I needed the experience of staying sober in the very surroundings where alcohol had cut me down . I did receive all these benefits and a great deal more . Indeed , there was one colossal dividend that resulted directly from my grudging decision to reenter the market place . It was a Wall Street business trip to Akron , Ohio , in 1935 , that first brought me face to face with Dr . Bob — AA’s co – founder – to – be . So the birth of AA itself actually hinged on the fact that I had been trying to meet my bread – and – butter responsibilities.

We must now leave the absorbing topic of self – delusion and look at some of those trying life situations which we have to meet foursquare and head – on . Suppose we are handed an employment application that asks , “ Have you ever suffered from alcoholism , and were you ever hospitalized ? ” Here , we AAs can assuredly make a good report of ourselves . Almost to a man we believe that nothing short of the absolute truth will do in situations of this type . Most employers respect our Fellowship and they like this rugged brand of honesty , especially when we reveal our AA membership and its results . Of course many another life problem calls for this identical brand of forthrightness . For the most part , situations requiring utter honesty are clear – cut , and readily recognizable . We simply have to face up to them , our fear and pride regardless . Failing to do this , we shall be sure to suffer those ever mounting conflicts which can only be resolved by plain honesty . There are , nevertheless , certain occasions where reckless truth – telling may create widespread havoc and permanent damage to others . Whenever this seems possible , we are likely to find ourselves in a bad jam indeed . We shall be torn between two temptations . When conscience agonizes us enough , we may well cast all prudence and love to the winds . We may try to buy our freedom by telling the brutal truth , no matter who gets hurt or how much . But this is not the usual temptation . It

is far more probable that we shall veer to the other extreme . We will paint for ourselves a most unrealistic picture of the awful damage we are about to inflict on others . By claiming great compassion and love for our supposed victims , we are getting set to tell the Big Lie — and be thoroughly comfortable about it , too . When life presents us with a racking conflict like this , we cannot be altogether blamed if we are confused . In fact , our very first responsibility is to admit that we are confused . We may have to confess that , for the time being , we have lost all ability to tell right from wrong . Most difficult , too , will be the admission that we cannot be certain of receiving God’s guidance because our prayers are so cluttered with wishful thinking . Surely this is the point at which we must seek the counsel of our finest friends . There is nowhere else to go .  Had I not been blessed with wise and loving advisers , I might have cracked up long ago . A doctor once saved me from death by alcoholism because he obliged me to face up to the deadliness of that malady . Another doctor , a psychiatrist , later on helped me save my sanity because he led me to ferret out some of my deep – lying defects . From a clergyman I acquired the truthful principles by which we AAs now try to live . But these precious friends did far more than supply me with their professional skills . I learned that I could go to them with any problem whatever . Their wisdom and their integrity were mine for the asking . Many of my dearest AA friends have stood with me in exactly this same relation . Oftentimes they could help where others could not , simply because they were AAs .  Of course we cannot wholly rely on friends to solve all our difficulties . A good advisor will never do all our thinking for us . He knows that each final choice must be ours . He will therefore help to eliminate fear , expediency , and self – deception , so enabling us to make choices which are loving , wise , and honest . The choice of such a friend is an all – important matter . We should look for a person of deep understanding , and then carefully listen to what he has to say . In addition , we must be positive that our prospective adviser will hold our communications in the strictest of confidence . Should he be a clergyman or doctor or lawyer , this can be taken for granted . But when we consult an AA friend , we should not be reluctant to remind him of our need for full privacy . Intimate communication is normally so free and easy among us that an AA adviser may sometimes forget when we expect him to remain silent . The protective sanctity of this most healing of human relations ought never be violated . Such privileged communications have priceless advantages . We find in them the perfect opportunity to be as honest as we know how to be . We do not have to think of the possibility of damage to other people , nor need we fear ridicule or condemnation . Here , too , we have the best possible chance of spotting self – deception . If we are fooling ourselves , a competent adviser can see this quickly . And , as he guides us out of our fantasies , we are surprised to find that we have few of the usual urges to defend ourselves against unpleasant truths . In no other way can fear , pride , and ignorance be so readily melted . After a time , we realize the we are standing firm on a brand – new foundation for integrity . Let us therefore continue our several searches for self – deception , great or small . Let us painstakingly temper honesty with prudence and love . And let us never flinch from entire forthrightness whenever this is the requirement . How truth makes us free is something that we AAs can well understand . It cut the shackles that once bonded us to alcohol . It continues to release us from conflicts and miseries beyond reckoning ; it banishes fear and isolation . The unity of our Fellowship , the love we cherish for each other , the esteem in which the world holds us — all of these are products of such integrity as , under God , we have been privileged to achieve . May we therefore quicken our search for still more genuine honesty and deepen its practice in all our affairs.

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