Billy Graham once told the story that Albert Einstein was traveling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, checking tickets. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his shirt pocket. He couldn’t find his ticket, so he reached in his trouser pockets. It wasn’t there, so he looked in his briefcase but couldn’t find it. Then he looked in the seat beside him. He still couldn’t find it.
The conductor said, ‘Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it.’
Einstein nodded appreciatively and the conductor continued down the aisle. As he was ready to move to the next carriage, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket.
The conductor rushed back and said, ‘Dr. Einstein, please don’t worry, I know who you are. No problem. You don’t need a ticket.’
Einstein looked at him and said, ‘Young man, I too, know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going.’
This story makes me think about the importance of honesty. How embarrassing for Einstein to have to admit to a train carriage full of passengers that he didn’t know where he was going! But, on reflection, this was the wisest choice. It would have been worse for Einstein to carry on in his journey, and pass his station for want of the gumption to admit before others that he was at a loss as to his destination.
Honesty is difficult sometimes. Giving our honest view to one another can be embarrassing or even painful. Furthermore, honesty and truth are not necessarily the same thing – we can all be honestly wrong. But honesty is the midwife of truth. We won’t get to truth if we can’t be honest with each other, if we can’t sift through our perceptions in order to arrive at the truth together. Sometimes this means facing things is tough.
But if it can be difficult, why be honest? Shouldn’t we just tell people what we think they want to hear? Or isn’t it better just to keep our understanding to ourselves? What’s the problem with a little white lie?
The answer is that our approach to honesty is an active ingredient in our lives and in our relationships.
It’s the yeast from which our character is formed.
On the other hand, dishonesty can be like a cancer deep within, eating away at us and our ability to have healthy relationships with one another. It spawns a web of lies that we ourselves become entangled in. It ties us up in knots.
Alternatively, honesty nurtures trust, which is the building block of healthy relationships. Without trust our relationships can’t flourish to be everything that they should be.
It’s for these reasons that Thomas Jefferson called honesty “The first chapter in the Book of Wisdom”.
Importantly, it’s when we find the strength to be honest and to seek truth together that transformation becomes possible. Many of us are aware of 12 Steps programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step in AA is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” In this recognition, in bringing a difficult truth out into the light, the possibility of positive change is born.
Equally, naming truths in a way that respects and values people can be a powerful way to tackle injustice, particularly when we do this on behalf of others. Without the bravery of men and women throughout history to call out uncomfortable truths, particularly to those in power, our world would be a poorer and uglier place. In the words of the renowned campaigner against South African apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu;
“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
At its best, the habit of honesty is cathartic, empowering, courageous and relational. It is a prerequisite for truth, and in the words of Jesus, it is the truth that sets us free.