The Honest Self

HonestyOver the past few days, I’ve begun to notice something about myself. When I watch movies or TV shows, I find myself drawn to the characters who display honesty and transparency. They are often my favourite characters. Locke (in the first half of the series) from Lost. Abed from Community. Gale (in his minor role) in Breaking Bad. Kenneth from 30 Rock. Peter and Hiro from Heroes. These people are not all perfect characters, nor are they always the brightest. But there is some charming simplicity in their actions that draws me toward them. In real life, my closest friends are also ones that display this honesty. I find myself drawn to these people because of the value that I place on honesty.

Obviously, there is nothing taboo about valuing honesty. As the old adage says, “Honesty is the best policy.” But I am drawn to a type of honesty that goes beyond simply not telling lies. It has its roots in something more integral to the self. It is not quite “authenticity”, for that implies being one’s “true self,” whatever that means. The honesty I look for has more to do with a simple sincerity of heart: a degree of integrity. It involves defining one’s purposes and making them plain to everyone. It involves finding one’s identities and being true to them. It is akin to the existentialists’ idea of “good faith,” living a life without self-deception.

I am generally open about most areas of my life. I don’t hold many secrets, nor do I shy away from making my opinions known. I find this an effective strategy for getting to know others; by sharing myself, I encourage others to share themselves with me. But when I find someone who is willing to put down pretenses and be honest, I am irresistibly drawn to them. Finding these people can be difficult. Being honest means being vulnerable. And I readily admit that often I am not as honest as I could or should be. But such honesty and vulnerability shines like a beacon in the dark when it occurs. When others stumble and fall over the obstacles they place to avoid revealing themselves to others, these honest people guide them to a surer path. In the process comes intimacy, developed through true human connection rather than pretense.

Being an honest person requires more than making true statements. It requires a total commitment of the core of who you are.1 Being honest means uncovering the mysteries of your own soul, finding what drives you and what supports you. It means being true to your identities, whether they are “father” or “lesbian” or “model train builder” or “custodian.” (This list is clearly far from exhaustive.) Then it means sharing those identities with the people around you. Such identities reveal the passions that make you who you are, and sharing those passions allows you to share true social connections with others. In contrast, to fail to reveal one’s passions makes it impossible to find connection with others. Pretense and posturing often rule our social interactions, but the honest person sets these aside to share their passions and discover the passions of others.

"Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." (Jean-Paul Sartre)Honesty, however, can also mean shedding the identities, values, and history by which you no longer wish to define yourself. Such a process helps to distill the self down to what is most passionate, most affirming, most excellent. The history we all carry can be a tool to drive us or a weight to drag us down. But it can be excised. Your history will always exist, but it need not define you. The path toward an honest self is to take charge of one’s own identities instead of allowing the past to have control.

I believe that in this process of becoming honest, a certain type of person will emerge. This person finds a measure of good in the people around them. They make the best of situations and hope for a better future. They do not allow themselves to be lost in the fantasy of a perfect world—for they must be honest with the world as it is—but they also do not resign themselves to the impossibility of improvement. The honest person inevitably will find themselves facing life (and death) with confidence, for their strength wells up from within, from the distilled passions of their soul. The honest person will find good in the world and cultivate it, recognizing that a world of pain and sorrow is a world all the more fertile for good. And cultivating such goodness will be an act that comes from the deepest part of their heart, purely for the pleasure of seeing goodness thrive.

Why do I say such passions are inevitable? Could not a person find their identities to be evil, and push toward such ends? Perhaps, but I am of the belief that evil rarely if ever comes from the deepest part of who a person is, but from the surface-level concerns that push us toward selfish ends. We are creatures that understand the pain of others, and the more a person understands their own self, the more they also come to understand others. Such knowledge (if done in good faith) pushes the honest self toward compassion and kindness rather than destruction. This connection to others is important, and separates simple inward-flowing introspection from outward-flowing honesty.

The Giving Tree, by Shel SilversteinAnyone can be honest. I say this not as someone who has achieved perfect honesty myself, but as one who is on the journey and confident of the destination. Some may find it difficult, and indeed, the process could hardly be anything less than difficult. To avoid being honest with oneself and with others is easy; distractions serve to direct thoughts elsewhere, and many social strategies can serve to avoid intimacy with others. And of course, some have spent longer developing these avoidant strategies, leading to a thick layer of weeds that choke out the eager sapling. But effort, time, and patience will clear out even the most overgrown garden, and allow space for the honest self to sprout, and bud, and blossom. The results will be well worth it. For like the Giving Tree, an honest self can give shade to those around it, offering peace and solace. And for the truly honest self, this benevolence comes at no cost, for it emerges from the very core of who they are.

I believe we could all use a little more honesty. We could all be more compassionate to those around us. We could all open up the door just an inch further to let someone in to see who we are. We could all take time to ponder over the passions  and identities that make us who we are. We could all allow the tree to grow just a little bit more. So go tell someone in your life that you care about and appreciate them. Go share a secret with a trusted friend. Go tell someone what your deepest passion in life is. Just…be honest.

Notes:

  1. When I use this phrase, I don’t mean to imply that there is some fundamental, unchangeable core to who one is. I merely mean that some aspects of the self are more “central” than others, and thus play a greater role in forming one’s identities and actions. []

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