I want to tell you about the value of truthfulness and what’s connected to that. But first some words about how this sits with me.
Through no virtue of my own, I turned out an honest person. My father happened to be of impeccable integrity and I just followed in his footsteps. I don’t remember him ever saying anything about that you should not lie or should stick to the truth. It was all over him – not as a stern demand but rather as a natural way of being.
I never stole a cent from my mother’s purse – as I heard so many people did, growing up – I didn’t even see that option. Luckily, Dutch culture champions honesty as nothing else – though that is not to say that the Dutch don’t cheat on their taxes, that politics in the Netherlands are done without trickery or that there is no lying in the courtrooms. But as one public prosecutor once told a friend of mine: we don’t ask defendants to promise or swear to tell the truth anymore because that is for too many the sign that from now on they’ve got to start lying.
I raised one son for three years and he has the same natural honesty ever since. He once reported a terrible mistake by him to a superior, ready to face the consequences. That’s how we do it, no, daddy, he asked me. He got off lightly, with a short rebuke. How great to have someone working for you whom you can trust!
When he was three years old, he got confused by someone lying to him. I needed to tell him that he did not need to worry about what he was told since it was not true. He looked at me incomprehensible. How could one say something that contradicts what is? At that moment someone next to us told a small girl something that was not true to get her to obey. I told my son, you see? Some people do that. It was like telling him that death exists or murder. You saw his brain zoom with activity.
Most probably, this tradition goes all the way back to our illustrious impressive forefather, Rabbi Salomon Rosenbach, my father’s grandfather’s grandfather, of Austrian nobility that reportedly was bestowed on one of his ancestors by the Emperor – I would imagine for services to the Court. Honesty can be found all throughout the Talmud. No, not sermons on honesty, but rather dealing with life’s challenges candidly. That’s a very important part of Judaism. The Austrian Emperor must have been delighted to deal with someone like that. Lies create distance between people, and rulers can be very lonely with everyone faking it around them.
How tragic that, with such an honest Tradition, the Jewish State lies in a neighborhood where lying and cheating are the default modes; where, if you’re honest, you’re considered a fool.
My mother also understood honesty deeply. She called a best friend someone “you could commit a murder with,” murder being about the worst thing you could do. But a true friend would still not betray or abandon you if you’d have. Loyalty and integrity are very close relatives.
It is clear to me that all babies are born honest. Any playing fast and loose with the truth as we may see in many people, is learned behavior and thinking, either by osmosis or by training, especially the character trait of chronic dishonesty but also an easy willingness to get away with a “white lie.” We do not need to teach children truthfulness. We only need to not ruin their inborn strong connection to reality.
You will not hear me boast about my truthfulness because I did nothing to acquire it. I didn’t work hard nor slow for it. I got it for free and no one took it from me. That doesn’t mean that I’m never tempted, that never a dishonest answer crosses my mind. However, I immediately understand that such an approach is way below me, unbefitting, not compatible with who I am, in almost all cases deprives one of more than it will ever give you. When you can’t say the truth, at least shut up – instead of making up stories.
This is very different from someone who learned and practiced dishonesty and even thievery and came clean to the deepest level. Someone who was a thief and whom you can now trust with your eyes closed. What a great accomplishment! Such a person could rightfully brag about his reclaimed virtue for all to hear!
I want to tell you, this can be yours too. Even if you had very little role models for honesty and little practice with it until now. Today is a new day. This hour is a new hour. This moment is a new moment. And if you ruined this one, a new one just arrived.
Unfortunately, this path to better one’s life is practically closed to chronic liars. Words have lost all meaning for them and then it’s hard to see that truth and falsehood actually differ. Also, being totally untrustworthy, they cannot trust anyone else anymore, so they cannot confide in a friend. They’re often utterly alone and morally stuck.
As a naturally honest person, I can tell you, uprightness is the most important character trait and habit that you could try to regain. Lacking any integrity is the worst lot one can have. Regaining integrity is the greatest acquisition that could befall you. If you want to improve your character, your track record, your morality and those of your friends and offspring, pick or take back love for and commitment to truth.