1/1/2013 10:44

Audacity of Truth

A few days ago I was reminded of a story from sixth grade. (On Christmas Eve a young person I know told me, "Everything leads to a story with you, Pete." Well, I have so many!)

Sixth grade was then the highest grade in elementary school, which meant that the school safety patrol consisted of sixth grade students who left class early so as to be on duty protecting the younger students when they were dismissed. There was an unused classroom that year where the safety patrol gear was kept and where we would put on our safety patrol belts and badges before heading to the stairs, doorways, and streets. Each month one student was assigned to be the Captain and another to be Lieutenant; their duty was to walk rounds and check that all members of the saftey patrol were on station.

One day during the month when I was assigned to be Captain I got into a conversation with the Lieutenant as we were getting into uniform in that empty classroom. It must have been an engrossing conversation since we continued talking in the hall on our way outside. Oh, but classes are still in session as we take our stations. Talking in the halls is forbidden! I remember seeing the safety patrol girl stationed at the top of the stairway and then suddenly realizing that we were talking when we ought not to be. And that the girl who saw us was a snitch.

Not surprisingly, our teacher confronted me the next day in the unused classroom. What were we thinking, he wanted to know. So I told him the story I just told you: We started talking and forgot about the restrictive environment until I saw the other safety patrol on station.

"Do you have the audacity to stand there and tell me that you forgot?!" shouted my teacher.

"Well, yes," I said, innocently. For it was the truth.

At once my teacher backed off, calmed down, and admonished me to avoid such a mistake in the future. He was a good and reasonable man (and a decent stage actor) who was not prepared to bluff through a scene where he had no motivation. From him I learned that simple honesty is not only the easiest strategy but often the best tactic. Honesty tends to be disarming as well as often surprising. It helps to get you past the accusations and on to the meat.

We quote President George Washington quoting the aphorism that honesty is always the best policy, but we have more stories in which a little deceit (or at least withholding a bit of the truth) is presented as morally superior. Those counterstories tend to evoke situations in which the protagonists, moral giants with whom we identify, decide to protect someone they perceive as unable to deal with the whole truth. But who is being deceived here?

In actual reality we are not ourselve moral giants -- and those around us are not moral Lilliputians. Honesty works best because it helps us to play the game. Yes, I was talking in the hall in sixth grade. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do; it happened because I was lost in the conversation and not paying attention to the situation I was actually in. Yes, I am likely to do something just as stupid before the end of the day today.

What good does it do to step forth audaciously as if the pit is not in front of you when it is there? How can you play the actual reality game well unless you take note of actual reality? The only audactiy that works is the audacity of honesty.