Even if we weren’t raised in a particularly religious household or community, it’s conventional wisdom that lying is bad. We castigate politicians and lawyers for being dishonest, and even the whitest of lies can forever ruin a relationship. In my “Age of Hamilton and Jefferson” class, we learned that calling someone a liar in the 18th century almost always resulted in a duel. A person’s life was only worth the value of their word, and today, even though it might not be worth dying over, we highly value a person’s reputation as “honest.”
I too strive to be honest. But in recent days, reflecting on what my honesty has cost me and on how other people’s honesty has affected me, I’ve concluded that there has to be more nuance to honesty: Can honesty have more “nuance” and still be considered honesty at all? Does honesty pay, or are we stuck in the world of our childhoods, when life was black or white, when telling the truth was good and to lying was bad? These questions aren’t novel to me, as I’ve considered them for a while now.
For example, in my first year, I walked through Phelps Gate as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed lamb, still faithful to the ideal of honesty and openness. But after experiences writing for the News, covering a Supreme Court Justice and talking with my “Quantitative Foundations of Microeconomics” professor, I soon questioned whether I’d be able to leave Yale as innocent and idealistic as I had entered it.
We constantly make decisions about whether or not to be honest. One morning I received an email saying, “Flash Pitch: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will be at the law school tomorrow at 9 a.m. to talk about the rule of law. Reply all to claim!” Without hesitation, I responded to the email within the same minute that I had received it. It was unreal to think that the first article I wrote for the News would be about a Supreme Court justice. But just a few minutes later, as soon as the initial excitement began to wear off, I realized that I had signed up for this assignment when I had an econ problem solving session that same morning. But this concern too passed away within a matter of minutes — who would pick a problem-solving session over a chance to meet and interact with a justice?
Breyer did not disappoint, and I was confident that I had made the right decision, but I had to email my econ professor about my absence. I resolved to tell the truth, because I was sure she would understand. I was going to a talk featuring a justice, after all.
Alas, she did not understand. She informed me that she was glad that I had had “a good educational experience” but that I had “missed the pop quiz which could not be made up.” Adding insult to injury, she reminded me that, “part of a Yale education is learning to choose among the many interesting and valuable educational experiences at any point in time and evaluating their opportunity cost.” “Have a good weekend!” she added as an afterthought. I couldn’t help but laugh at the entire thing, lest I cry over my naivete. Things only got worse, and I ended up dropping the class.
I still struggle with these questions about honesty. Just a few weeks ago, I was at dinner with a friend when I told her that an aspect of the conversation we were having bothered me. She burst into tears, and I felt like a jerk — even though my honesty wasn’t a character attack, it essentially had the same effect as one. And a few days ago, a different friend was brutally honest when working with me on a problem set. He said, “I hope I never have kids that are as bad at math as you are.” I don’t blame him, but it was still hurtful.
So, where does that leave us? Should we jettison honesty in the name of kindness and courtesy, in the name of going along in life without causing more problems for ourselves? I’m inclined to say yes, but there’s something to be said for the temporary pain that honesty causes. Sometimes, this pain can pre-emptively solve issues that we can face down the road, that can tell you that you a class or a professor isn’t really for you, that a friend may not really be a friend after all. Honesty is a double-edged sword, so consider that the next time you hold something back.
Adrian Rivera is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column typically runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .