Everywhere now, nature reminds us of decline and mortality. The most beautiful flowers have shriveled. The lush foliage on campus — part of that greater network that sustains the air we breathe — has atrophied. Nevertheless, we make stupid remarks to one another about how beautiful the falling leaves are. Dead things pollute the air around us, the air is getting colder and the sky grayer, and we have the gall to smile and say, “How lovely!”
How do you feel after reading that last, quite honest, paragraph? Did it make you happier or better?
I didn’t think so.
I used to be an advocate for radical honesty. I even wrote a passionate blog post about it. Now, I think honesty can be an ethical trap as well as a virtue.
I identified the big moral pitfall of honesty when I heard a This American Life segment about a man named Michael Leviton, who was raised to be completely honest. As I listened to Leviton talk about his candid experiences, I recognized something I’d encountered in my own, at the time, ongoing experiment with total honesty: it often meant total selfishness.
One story particularly stuck out to me. Leviton recounts how he once made a dashing romantic gesture. He stopped his date, whom he was walking with, took the cigarette she was about to light from her mouth, and kissed her. It was a great moment, he says — one which he promptly spoiled by telling the woman honestly how cool he thought what had just happened was and how unusual it had been for him to do something as bold as that. Instead of letting a nice moment age for the woman’s enjoyment, he gratified his own internal dialogue and ruined it.
I empathized. Earnestly trying to tell my truth, I’d found, often meant ignoring others’ feelings and needs.
Leviton goes on to describe how, at age 29, he resolved to become less selfishly honest to people, and made a note to “remember their minds are chaos.”
That resonated with me, too. How often was I throwing self-centered truths into minds that neither needed nor could process them well? Or, how often was I letting the noisy products of my own chaotic mind drown out the valuable truths others could have provided me?
What I’ve concluded now is that while speaking the truth is important, it is not a good in itself. Honesty is right when it makes the world better and happier. To know when that’s the case, I have to use all of my social and moral faculties, not just follow a rigid rule. I have to sense when giving of my honest self would improve someone’s life, and when it would simply add to the chaos.
I’ve found that most people have beat me to this conclusion. Maybe that’s why fall, despite its manifold drawbacks, is a season most of us outwardly celebrate. It’s harvest time, sweater weather, pumpkin-palooza. It’s a time when we keep smiles on our faces, even when honesty often calls for frowns. It’s a time when we transcend ourselves, in small ways, for the greater good. How lovely.