The Incompleteness of “Total Honesty”

By Keith Miller | February 22, 2010

Keith, why would anyone who is a Christian hesitate to be totally honest?  Isn’t it just a question of having the courage to risk rejection?  Can you think of reasons or situations where total honesty would not be the best policy?

One reason that total honesty is not as simple as it seems is the virtually universal experience of “denial”—that is, we cannot even see many of our own true motivations. Many Pharisees were considered to be leaders in having integrity, and yet Jesus told them you can pick out the tiniest speck of evil in your brother’s eye but you cannot see the log in your own.  So one reason to hesitate in saying your truth about another person is we can’t see our real motives in blasting someone with our truth.

The second reason is more complex and difficult to understand.  Here’s how I discovered that:  It was still very dark, but I was awake, having been disturbed by a bad dream.  I was weeping because the dream had recalled an experience in my adolescence which was so painful that I thought I would never be free from its haunting presence.  Several times over the years I had been bothered by this dream.  And it always made me cringe; wanting to undo something I had done as a teenager.

This experience and its painful reliving over the years had changed my whole life, especially my views concerning integrity, love, and honesty in close relationships.  And although I hated the memory and had prayed many times that God would erase it from my mind, there was no doubt that it had helped me as a husband, father and friend.

It had happened at a boys’ summer camp where I was a counselor after my freshman year in college.  I was in charge of a cabin full of junior boys, about eight and nine years old.  They were at the hero-worship age, and I really loved them.  One boy, Mortey, a camper from somewhere in eastern Oklahoma, was a particular favorite of mine.  We became very close friends.  He was in my canoe on the float trip and played the starring comedy role in the play I wrote and organized as tribe coordinator.  He was a cagey little performer and stole the show with his quick grasp of humor.  Although they teased Mortey about his weight and the fact that he wore glasses, he was outgoing and had lots of old-fashioned guts and intelligence.

The little guy used to reach up and take my hand when we were walking alone, as if I were his dad.  And I would look down on him and smile.  He tended to be a little cocky about everything, including his relationship with me—though he never acted that way when he thought I was around.

At the end of eight weeks the time came for the camp awards.  The counselors met to vote on the honor camper trophies—the most important symbols of acceptance and success a boy could win.  When the preliminary weeding out had been done, two boys remained in the race for junior honor camper: Mortey and Bobby.  Wanting to have integrity, I decided I was so biased I could not vote, but when the ballots had been counted, both boys had the same number.  I had to vote to break the tie.

At that time in my life I was an obsessive compulsive on the inside, a joking character on the outside.  But I had been taught that absolute integrity was the highest value.  When decisions which seemed to concern my integrity were to be made, I really strained to do the right thing.

As I looked at these two boys and their camp records, I tried to be objective.  Bobby was a much better athlete and had broken some records, but Mortey definitely had the edge in the human understanding department.  They had both helped their tribes by winning contests and by being friendly kids.  It was easy to see why the vote had been tied.  I was miserable.  Little Mortey had done a great job… but he was a little cocky, and he did have a few faults I knew about.  This definitely gave Bobby a slight edge.  Everyone knew how close we had been; I was afraid that if I voted for Mortey the other counselors would think I was voting for him because of our friendship.  It was strange that such a trivial thing could have been so momentous, but my whole integrity seemed to be on the line, and I felt sort of sick at my stomach.  I did not want the responsibility of deciding.

My hesitation over the simple decision was delaying the meeting, and the other counselors became irritated.  Under the pressure I decided—against Mortey.   And we went on.

Only inside I didn’t go on.  I knew that although I had been honest, I had somehow been wrong.  While sitting there, I got the idea that I ought to level with Mortey about what had happened.  I tried to dismiss the thought, but it kept coming back.  And I felt I had to tell him the truth “in order to have integrity” in the situation.  This was my problem.

On the last morning at camp, as all the boys were getting on the bus, Mortey came up to me.  Everyone was yelling for him to hurry.  His face was streaked with tears, and it was obvious that he had been crying and did not want me to know.  As we walked away from the others, I told him how much our friendship meant to me. I went on to tell him how close he had come to being elected honor camper—that in fact the vote had been a tie.  His eyes got very wide, and I continued in my nineteen-year-old total honesty, “I hadn’t voted up till that time, Mortey, because everyone knows that you and I are such close friends.  But they made me vote then…and I voted for Bobby.”  As I started to explain why I had done it, the look on his face caught me completely off guard.  I will never forget it.  It haunts me still, because I saw the look of a soul betrayed by his dearest friend.  In an instant I saw how wrong I had been and why.  This little boy really loved me.  And I realized that he had done a much finer job than Bobby at camp.  But because Mortey had loved me, he had revealed his faults as well as his good points to me, and I had used this knowledge to judge and condemn him (from his perspective).

He just stood there and stared at me in disbelief.  After his dad had let him down by leaving his mother, he had trusted me.  I had the chance to give him all he had ever wanted, but I had tossed it to another boy in a different tribe, a boy I hardly knew.  He covered his face with his hands and ran towards the bus. I tried to grab him, to explain my feelings, but he broke loose and, wriggling between the last few campers, disappeared onto the bus.  The door closed and the bus pulled out.  I ran along beside it, hunting for Mortey in the windows.  But all the other kids were pressed against them, and I didn’t see him at all.  In the midst of the shouting and singing of the camp loyalty song, Mortey rode out of my life in a cloud of dust.

It was years later, after I became a Christian and began to understand myself and my problems more clearly, that I began to see the trap “honesty” can be.  It had become my highest value—“honesty at any cost.”  This meant that I worshiped honesty.  In my struggle to decide who should be honor camper, I had been so intent on maintaining my own integrity that the broader values in the judging situation had escaped me.  And in any case, I was blind to the consequences of trying to clear my own skirts with Mortey by telling him all—not realizing that a nine-year-old boy could not understand me.  But now I realize that maybe he did understand me: A Christian Pharisee who cared more about “being pure” than loving him.  Maybe that was what broke his heart.

For this little boy saw the world through a different set of eyes that I did.  It was to be almost ten years before I began to surrender and put myself into the hands of the One who sees life in the same way that Mortey did.  For in his world there was a higher value than raw honesty with which to judge people… and that value is love.

If he actually did it (was honest) for the sake of having good conscience, he would become a Pharisee and cease to be a truly moral person.  I think that even saints did not care for anything other than simply to serve God, and I doubt that they ever had it in mind to become saints.  If that were the case, they would have  become only perfectionists rather than saints.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Lord, help me to realize the limited nature of my ability to judge the total circumstances in any human encounter.  Forgive me for being blinded by needs for integrity and putting my adolescent desire for rightness ahead of Mortey’s need for love.  But, God, thank You for teaching me through that little boy the importance of the kind of loving loyalty You have for us, which—for me—transcends all Your other gifts, including faith, and that your love even transcends Your judgment of our sins.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1, 2

One comment | Add One

  1. Dan Billen - 03/15/2010 at 10:23 am

    I recently came across a copy of “Habitation of Dragons” and have been enjoying reading it every night before bed.

    The story of Mortey broke my heart, and reminded me of times in my life that I have been honest with others to a fault. I am still haunted by Miller’s story about Mortey – and pray that Mortey recovered, healed and trusted in Jesus to fill the loneliness I’m sure he felt.

    Was there ever an effort to track down Mortey after the fact? Anyone know what became of him? Does he know he was used as such a powerful example in this great book? If my math is right Mortey would be in his 70’s now. Amazing since the story reads so fresh and relevant to today.

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