After a sweltering late July day a few weeks ago, my friend (and co-blogger) Michael and I took advantage of a mid evening temperature dip and went to play tennis at a Chapel Hill public court. We established a gentle, indefinite rally, one that gave us plenty of time and breath to talk. As has often been the case recently, I wanted to talk about honesty. And we did.
If we’re being honest, though, the topic has been on my mind since before late July. It’s the fundamental element of the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (better known as Confession) which I have been participating in about twice a year for the past 10 years or so. It has also repeatedly popped up in my conversations over the last few years about romantic tactics and ethics. Indeed, I think that my interest in honesty is inseparable from my interest in romance. From Jane Austen to Drake and Josh, artists have portrayed honesty as intertwined with romantic fulfillment. In the former’s Regency-era novels, honest declarations of feelings of romantic affection nearly always mark the climaxes. In a memorable episode of the latter, a classic mid-2000s Nickelodeon teen sitcom, Drake attempts to win over a romantic interest–Carly, who doubts his honesty–by confessing to a variety of petty misdeeds in front of his victims. After the declarations, Drake and Carly make out .
It’s one thing, though, to be honest with a priest about watching porn and masturbating. It’s another thing entirely to be honest with a woman I care about–especially when I’m pretty damn sure her feelings for me don’t match mine for her . God promises to be merciful. The panel of human society that determines social status (and thereby one’s chance of successfully propagating one’s genetic material) seems much less forgiving.
So, I’ve had honesty on my mind for a while. The really defining experience driving my recent interest in honesty, however, occurred just this spring. I dated a girl, Lauren, for a brief time. On our first date, she mentioned she was an honest person. I assumed she meant she was callously blunt.
The next two weeks, during which we spent significant time together, followed what has become a sickeningly familiar relationship trajectory for me: Some initial romantic interest on my part (perhaps resulting from me mistaking the good feeling of being flattered by a girl’s interest toward me for significant romantic interest towards her)–Spending a lot of time together and growing to really like the girl interpersonally, while also feeling some low level of physical attraction–Death of physical attraction, or my decision that I did not feel enough to sustain a relationship–Cessation of romantic relationship .
The difference here was that Lauren was actually being honest when she told me she was honest. She was honest. She not only told me how she felt about me throughout our short relationship, she also asked me often how I felt about her. She bravely elicited honesty from me. It was wonderful. Every step of the relationship–even as it became clear that my feelings for her were inadequate for romance, especially as it became clear that my feelings for her were inadequate for romance–her honesty made things clearer, brighter, and less altogether sickening.
But let’s get to the point. I’ll ask you the same question I asked Michael that sunburnt evening. How honest do you think we should be? The ball’s in your court.
Don’t answer that question. Not yet.
Go ahead and hit the ball back to me.
Thank you . I think I want to say a little more before you answer. While we are on the topic of Will Romantic Pursuits, I should mention that I have asked a lot of people for advice on romance. And I have gotten a lot of different answers. Like most people who ask for advice (I would guess), I actually do want good advice. For advice to be good–at least if one accepts a scientific outlook on the world–it has to be true. The person who recounts their romantic story and concomitant lesson, then, whether that person is a grandfather, an aunt, a brother, or a friend, must be honest. Or else their story is worthless. In a scientific sense, it is bad data. When I decided to write a book this summer based off of some of my recent romantic experiences, I began looking for information from other people. I asked people who had inspired characters in the novella I was writing to give accounts of their interior life, in order to further the truthfulness of my own work. I asked a girl who rejected me in real life, for example, what was going through her head , . To her great credit, she gave me what she said is an honest account. I hope it helps my book be a more true and good-producing story. The bottom line is, we cannot get anywhere in our understanding of the world if we cannot give each other good data about our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and history. That requires honesty.
There. Now you can answer.
Hold on. Sorry. I actually do want to add a few more things before you say anything.
Honesty not only produces more good data–it also advances our moral understanding of ourselves. Recently, I contemplated taking lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD) as a way to expand my consciousness. Or, in less far-out terms, to experience what my brain can produce. I weighed the risks and rewards, listened to friends’ accounts, and did lots of online research. What I found was that LSD, along with most other well-known psychedelics, are relatively safe and non-addictive (from what we know. Because they are illegal, they have not been studied very extensively). Taking these psychedelics, from most accounts, is an experience that ranges from very interesting to transformative. Most people, from what I have read and heard, merely have a pretty interesting, morally and emotionally positive, “trip.” Of course, there are downsides. Besides the risk of a psychological scarring from a “bad trip,” some small number of users (prevalence is, again, difficult to judge since the drug is illegal) suffers from altered sensory perception even after the trip . I was willing to run these (in my view, small) risks. But then my mom reminded me that, down the road, I would be faced with a question from potential employers and educators: Have you used illegal drugs?
If I took LSD and answered this question honestly, the repercussions could be severe—I might not get the job or placement I want practicing medicine or doing research. Or, after explaining to my potential employers that I only used LSD one time, along with my reasons for doing so, they might just say, “That’s fine! Come on board.” Working from a framework of radical honesty in this situation, then, forced me to either confront the possible negative social, career, and financial consequences of taking LSD, or forced me to not take the drug. I chose the latter. A attitude of radical honesty (in combination with foresight from my wise mother), locked me into a moral chess game. Instead of taking action with the assurance that I could lie about it later, I looked ahead and to see what the ramifications of my decision would be given full honesty. Black Rook to A7 (Consider Taking LSD). White Knight to B5 (Potential employer moves to ask about past drug use). Black Rook to B7 (Take LSD, admit drug use, face consequences) or Black Rook to B6 (don’t take LSD). In this chess game that radical honesty lays out for us, the moral and personal stakes are clear and high–high enough to motivate us to gain self-knowledge. In this case, I found out that, right now, I am not willing to face the potential social and career consequences of admitting to having used illegal drugs .
*Dribbles tennis ball slowly.*
I find it so easy to get hung up on things. Don’t you? It’s like there are a thousand mental traps just waiting for us to stumble into in our pursuit of good. A thousand little Pits of Despair. Take romantic love . A good thing to pursue, right? Sure. But it’s also a pursuit–given our culture’s saturation with fairy-tales about romance–that is easy to get caught up in, to languish in. Or take love more generally. Even the pursuit of that highest virtue, I think, can become an obsession–obscuring the importance and sapping the joy out of pursuing the other important virtues and components of human life (which, indeed, underpin love itself). I know I have fallen into both of those traps before.
Worse, perhaps, it is easy to let the spirit of noble goodwill–the one that drove our pursuit of love or good in the first place–to die within us. It’s easy to let doing good (going to work, kissing your spouse, giving to charity, talking to a friend) become a habit. That’s good, I suppose. But it’s also easy to let that habit become mundane. It is easy for what we see as mundane to rot in our sight, to putrefy. It’s easy for doing good to become robotic–to become inhuman–then repulsive, to us.
I think that is our truly greatest moral concern with honesty as well. That radical honesty would become automatic and soulless. We placate the calling of our truthful conscience by saying that if we were honest, we would be inhumanly cruel. We replay mental scenarios like the famous “Do these jeans make me look fat?” one. We worry that a truthful response would be callous, perhaps even despicable.
No, maybe that’s not quite right. Yes, we worry that an honest response would be cruel, but, more specifically, we worry that it would be somehow dishonest. It would lack honesty. It would miss the essential truth that we wish to convey when we say, “No, honey, you look great in those jeans.”
That lie, we think, better conveys the truth that we really feel: “Those jeans do make you look fat, but I still think you are so sexy that I want to push you up against the wall, pull those ugly jeans off of you, and make love to you in public.”
Or maybe in this scenario, we lack the spark of sexual desire for our jeans-trying partner. And the whole truth we feel is “Those jeans do make you look fat, and right now I’m slightly repulsed by your physical appearance, but I absolutely love you.”
Or maybe, in this scenario, we no longer love our jeans-trying partner. And the whole truth we feel is “Those jeans do make you look fat, and I have fallen out of love with you–in fact, I can’t quite remember if I ever was in love with you–but I am still committed to you. Let’s try to make this work.”
Or maybe, in this scenario, we no longer love or are committed to our jeans-trying partner, and the whole truth we feel is “Those jeans make you look fat. I don’t love you. And I’m not committed to you.”
In that situation, radical honesty probably means the toppling of the relationship with the jeans-tryer .
In all situations, honesty reveals our feelings as they are: messy, half-hearted, loathsome at times, but real. Real expressions of foible and passion, coldness and commitment. Real expressions of love. And how much more meaningful will those expressions be when our beloveds truly believe us?
Before I hit the ball back to you, let me add a few things. I am not saying that if Nazis come to your door, you should tell them the truth about the Jews you are hiding in your basement. Lying may be necessary as a self-defense against evil. All I’m saying, really, is that most of the time, we are surrounded by people who have little intention or desire to do harm or evil. Most of the time, we are surrounded by people we love. When they lie to us, they hurt us. When we lie to them, we hurt them. We hurt ourselves, too.
The ball’s in your court. How honest should we be?
 Conversely, artists have sometimes portrayed deception as a key to romantic success. In the underrated comedy School for Scoundrels (Todd Phillips, 2006), for example, a Machiavellian life guru character (Billy Bob Thornton) advises his students to “Lie, lie, lie, and lie some more,” in their interactions with women they are interested in. His lovelorn star pupil (Jon Heder) employs this strategy with some success.
 I mean to include here all situations of unrequited (or unequally requited) attraction or commitment: situations where I am more attracted to the woman than her to me, and vice versa.
 My familiarity with this trajectory, I think, in large part derives from the fact that I am often–pardon my language–a chickenshit coward. I don’t generally pursue the women toward which I feel the strongest sexual attraction because, as I mentioned, I am really quite afraid of social rejection.
 Good shot, by the way.
 “It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable.”
–Mr. Collins after Liz rejects his declaration, Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. Written by Jane Austen.
— Will Parker
 Just kidding. Though I have more than a little of Mr. Collins in me, I really did just want to know her thought processes.
 This is called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder.
 See footnote 3, first sentence.
 Are you sick of thinking about it yet?
 Which is probably for the best, in this case.