Honesty is a precious virtue. Wimpy Kid’s experiences while practicing honest speech are quite illuminating: When he decided to obey his mother by being an honest child, it was a liberating experience for him.
When his friend Max Smedley started telling him about his grand plans on becoming a Pro basketball player when he grows up, Wimpy kid was a lot more truthful. He said: “Think again, Max! Neither one of your parents is taller than 5-foot-4, and you’re the only 150-pound six-year-old I have ever seen!” Max started crying, “Waaaah”, while his father took him away. Wimpy Kid said smugly: “I cannot tell a lie!” When Rowley’s grandfather said in his birthday party that he wants a chocolate cake the next year, Wimpy Kid said to everyone’s embarrassment, “That is, if you are around next year.” adding “Hey, I am just trying to be honest.”
However, the hypocritical world around him did not appreciate his goodness. Wimpy Kid’s honesty angered everyone, including his mother. When she did not speak to him for a whole night, he decided that it was time for him to go back to how he was before.
Life teaches us that there is a terrible price one pays for practicing such virtues. Yet, these are virtues which everyone preaches. If you are a decent human being, it is quite possible that you will be surprised when you are being penalized for practicing an ideal over which there is unanimous agreement. It is hard not to see that you are being penalized not for your vices, but for your virtues.
As the great strategist Robert Greene reminds us, honesty is a blunt instrument which bloodies more than it cuts. I learned it the hard way. In my late teens, I loved talking to a 13 year old school girl I met on Yahoo Chat. She lived in the city where I went to college. She often began conversations along these lines: “I know what many boys who talk to me want. I know you too well. Do not worry. You can marry me when I grow up. Just wait. It might happen.” I would burn in shame, speechless—and then I would lie in my bed for hours, with unpleasant butterflies in my stomach, hoping that someday I might forget it. But, then, I just might.
It was hard for me to not like someone who could see through me that well. I would deny, and hem and haw. I used to pretend not to understand when she hid the whip from me. After a few months, I would bring it up in the middle of a conversation, all of a sudden–because, there was no way I could forget that humiliation. She would laugh and say: “But, I did not mean it at all. Are you still not able to forget it? Does it hurt because it is all true?” Her IQ, I estimate, was 50 points higher than that of senior girls in my college. When I used to compliment her intelligence, she would reply: “It is so nice of you to rub it in! Believe me, I am flattered. Enough kissing my ass. Shall we please move on?” I ended up being convinced of this—As much as I appreciate being understood, it would have been better if she had kept her mouth shut.
One day, a 15-year-old mutual friend of ours called me up to cheerfully announce that she was suspended from her school. She had said that when she met him first, he was as dumb as a ten-year-old. After asking her why she did not go to school that day, I said, “Perhaps your parents know that you are a smart girl who does not need nobody’s help.” She nodded and turned silent. After a while, she asked whether “Mr. As-dumb-as-a-ten-year-old” had said anything. The school authorities had decreed that she take rest for two weeks. Her class teacher failed to appreciate her sarcasm when she lashed out: “I can, of course, understand the frustrations of a forty-five year old virgin.”
The lessons I learned about truth in my childhood would last a lifetime. Once when my mom admonished me for being a dishonest boy, I decided to shape up. I stepped out of my house and told our neighbor a hard truth I had always hidden from her: “My mom thinks that you are a blabbermouth!”
I barely knew her, but I do remember her pretty daughter who dreamed of getting into IIT (and later ran away with another never-do-well). One evening, me and my six-year-old brother appeared at her door, and rang the door bell. When she opened the door, we said: “We have heard that you are a good chess player. We would very much like to learn the game from you.” She looked at us, and smiled: “But, chess is a game which intelligent people play.” We replied with a shy smile, “We are very intelligent.”
Coming back to the incident—There was an expression of shock on her mothers’ face–as if someone had just shut the door behind her, and it filled me with immense delight. When I ran back into my house with childish happiness, my mom gave me one smack after another. When I reminded that I was just being truthful, my mother held my shoulders and looked at me, with deep anger in her eyes. It was the day I learned that there are very few things on earth which anger people more than honesty.
When I grew up, it was hard for me to evade that dishonesty is everywhere. In Junior High, I and my bench-mates loved weaving stories around our Math teacher. Once we spotted him standing far away in a corner, talking to a classmate’s mother. The discussion went off track after I had said that things have reached the point that we have to fear for our mothers. Feeling bored and distracted, I soon went into a slumber.
After a while, I got back to my senses and held my chin straight, attentively. The boys near me, however, were still laughing out loud. Our English teacher called them to her desk to ask what was going on. I was still in a semi-somnambulist haze, and a smile appeared on my face. I had long disassociated myself from what had happened. I hoped that they would soon be put through some hell.
When I heard her calling my name, I slowly walked to her desk with a shocked expression on my face. My bench-mates were laughing, covering their faces with their text books. They had “confessed” that at the root of all this was a shrill noise I made. “We couldn’t have helped it”. She scolded me for creating problems everywhere despite having my seat changed many times. The sad truth was that I was subject to such backstabbing everywhere. I was shocked by their complete disregard for facts. I was always pained by this aspect of people.
It has always been my strong conviction that what marks an honest person is his inability to lie. In rare instances in which I was caught lying in school, teachers used to tell me: “If you tell the truth, I will let you go.” And then the truth would flow out of my mouth-word by word. They would then scold me, hiding their smile: “Please don’t do this again, because you can’t—and you know it.”
If I ever did something horrible-like not bringing my text book, teachers used to say: “No punishment for anyone today. I am letting all you go because I cannot think of doing do anything to him.” My classmates often retaliated by writing my name in the list of boys who made noise in the class when the teacher was absent. Teachers thought of such instances as a grinding test for their integrity. But, after a point, they could easily see through the clever Machiavellian tactics of my classmates.
I remember the smile on the face of a teacher who once said: “After all, he is not a saint!” When I saw her smile, I could sense the real motive of the rationalizers who snarl: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us. After all, none of us are Ayn Rand-ian villains. Blah. Blah. Blah.”
In school, I was a soft, silent boy whose hair was painfully combed and dress neatly pressed—a boy whose greatest sin was reading the punishment scene in Tom Sawyer 200th time-a boy whose second greatest sin was wondering: “What if Tom hadn’t been noble?”. I did not know that one day I would grow up, and that people would do bad things to me.
Things were not much different in college. Once, senior boys wanted me to join them in the train journey to my hometown when the college closed for Christmas. But, one of them (Mr. Fatso) warned me that it was not a smart idea to join them. I went along, but at the final moment, I stepped out of the train and waved my hand, smiling. After the vacation, they pounced on me asking why I did not join them. I said: “Mr. Fatso said that you guys will do awful things to me.” They were surprised: “What?” Late in the night, Mr. Fatso came to my house. I gathered that he was severely reprimanded. He held me close to the wall and started yelling: “You do not know me well enough!”. He gave up only when I burst out laughing thinking, “Now, you are being so lame!”
If there is something which tells us a lot about the honesty of the average Joe, it is his sleep pattern. For years, I have seen that all my roommates wake up around 12 O Clock on Sundays. I gather that they need a mother, a school teacher or a boss to keep them honest. Honesty does not come naturally to them. Someone should discipline them with a carrot and a stick. Then they wonder: “How can someone be up at 4 O Clock in the morning?” They do not know that there is work to be done in the world. They do not know that there is something called “frightening work ethic” and “teeth-clenched determination”. They do not know that there is immense joy in hard toil.
I am often surprised when I see that with all its flaws, the police deter the average Joe from going too far in the pursuit of dishonesty. One night, my internet connection suddenly went off when I was struggling to finish off an assignment. When I called him up the internet guy, he yelled: “Today is my birthday. I am celebrating, Yaar.” But, he was not happy when he got the phone call from the police station, asking: “He does not even know our language. Why are you doing this to him?” Even the most dishonest men I have known understood that it would be better if they shape up after I hinted that the police uncle is lurking somewhere around the corner.
If there is anything which is worse than the dishonesty of the masses, it is what the average Joe thinks of honesty. I remember a day finding myself thinking that it has become impossible to Facebook in the office without being harangued by the noisy blather of liberated young ladies heaping abuse over the editor who butchered their masterpiece. When I heard one of them repeating ritualistically that this is not journalism, I asked her what she meant. I have never bothered to define such terms. She answered with a grim face: “It is the courage to tell the truth at the point of a gun.” She really meant it. When the bosses ordered, she was the first person to run.
I keep wondering how Mahatma Gandhi became hip in this dishonest country!