I have a choice to make. I have known for days this choice might come. The anticipation got me started wondering if I am on Honest Man. I then began to ponder what was the standard for being an Honest Man? Now I must choose . While my choice will not shatter the earth, it may shake my self-image.
What makes an honest man? It is not that honesty is difficult to define. In my opinion honesty is more black and white than many other character traits. dictionary .com got it right:
truthfulness, sincerity, or frankness
freedom from deceit or fraud
Saying what you sincerely believe to be true and not deceiving or committing fraud. Clear-cut, easy to understand…to a point. There are shades of grey. To be an Honest Man must one always needs to be honest? For if not always where do you dear the line. More than half the time feels inadequate. Is it even in the percentage of time? What about the magnitude of the lie or fraud? (BTW for the sake of this discourse I am setting aside those untruths we say to purely avoid hurting another’s feelings or to maintain marital bliss such as responding to “Do these clothes make me look fat?” or ” Am I funny?”)
If magnitude is measured in dollars or impact on another person”s life, again the standard becomes difficult to define. If the fraud is small can one still qualify as an Honest Man? For example, if one chooses to pocket the few dollars a cashier mistakenly gives, is that dishonest? Certainly it is the employee’s responsibility to do their job. You did not initiate the deceit you just chose not to correct it. In fact you are doing a public service are you not? OK, not.
Anyways, honesty comes easy when the stakes are small. The psychic reward for being honest often is often greater than the few dollars of gain. Does one need a large test to really know the extent of their honesty? How far does one have to go to correct a mistake in order to be considered honest to the world or, more importantly in the court of self-introspection?
My dilemma, the choice, that began the quest to understand Honesty falls into this latest category though the circumstance is a bit more complicated. Let me come back to the specifics. First let’s address the importance of honesty about honesty at this moment in time.
First, this is personal. We all define ourselves. I have never been Mr. Excitement, the Life of the Party, the Risk Taker, the Athlete. I have always perceived myself and tried to live up to The Mensch, the person who does the right thing. Honesty is a core aspect of menschness. Am I honest all of the time? No. I try to be but am occasionally weak when lack of honesty provides me with some advantage. Yet I believe that I am honest the vast majority of the time. I definitely even desperately want people to know that they can trust me. They might not agree with me but know I will be sincerely truthful.
Second, like many politicians, I am concerned about the morality and values of people and the direction in which they are headed. ( I am putting aside from the conversation today the honesty of politicians. That would require an entire book’s worth of writing and more satire than I have time for. Between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert one can find all one needs on that topic.) There are too many media reports of lies and deceit and the media only report on the smallest fraction of a percent of what goes on in the world. I am very concerned that people growing up in these times of high technology especially in terms of interpersonal communications. The reduction in face to face and voice to voice communications I believe desensitizes us to the fact that what we do and say impacts real people. Without strong People to People connections can be dishonest to a thing. The value of honesty already falls further.. I am not some Luddite raging against technology I am just pointing out another factor reducing our tendency toward honesty.
I am sure I do not have the big picture answers to what makes an Honest Man or how to make more of us Honest People. I do know that I have a dilemma.
Last month I bought an expensive camera lens that came with a $100 rebate. Knowing that I tend to forget to submit these on time i filled out the form immediately. In order to minimize fraud the lens company requires that you cut out a part of the box containing the serial number of the lens. There is only one of these. Otherwise, in theory, a dishonest person could send in multiple rebate requests.
I packed everything in an envelope but since I had no stamps the envelope sat in a jacket pocket — until one day when I was rushing to get out of a parking lot before the rates changed (it would have cost an extra $10) the envelope fell from my pocket. I discovered this much later. ( I will save for another post the mixed emotions and how I beat my self up for hours. That has to do with other aspects of my twisted personality and nothing to do with being honest.)
The next day I called the lens company and explained my tale of woe to a very sympathetic employee. I went out of my way to explain that I understood the reason they require physical evidence of the purchase. That I was not looking to collect an an extra rebate just the one I had counted on when making the purchase. She had me scan and send the remaining documentation to her and said that she would do her best to get the rebate paid. She was true to her word and in a couple of weeks I had my check. At the time of our call we joked that maybe this envelope would be found (it was lost in downtown Chicago) and that the finder would even put a stamp on the envelope and mail it. Neither of us thought that this was a likely ending to the story.
Yet come New Years Eve Day, I received a letter from a man living in a small town in Wisconsin. He found and mailed my rebate on his vacation weekend in the Big City. I was floored. What a nice thing to do for a stranger. I thought no more about it assuming that the lens company would notice the duplication and ignore the second rebate request.
Then in our electronically connected world I received an email from the company saying that my rebate has been processed and is in the mail. This email was almost identical to the one I had received 10 days before, shortly before my check had arrived. I said almost identical. The processing number was different and so I knew a second check was on its way.
I had been mulling over this issue of honesty ever since it became a theoretical possibility. The email made it a high probability and the envelope I hold in my hand, presumably with a check inside, is the reality. This is not some random act of a mistake by some big faceless corporation. I had stated to a real person that I had no intention of defrauding them. She took me at my word. If she had not I would have been angry and frustrated. I was happy with getting what I deserved. Now I have more –and I don’t deserve it. The devil on my left shoulder is saying that it will be more hassle than it is worth to return the check. After all, $100 will mean more to me than to some big corporation who should have had the systems in place so that this would not happen. Shame on them. I do not think that I need to tell you what the angel on my other shoulder is saying. Actually she is not saying a word knowing the greater impact this will have on me than a lecture about goodness would.
As I stated earlier what I eventually do will not be earth shattering. I am just not sure of the consequences to my little portion of it. If Diogenes walked through my house would he find what he was looking for?