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What is honesty?

“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”

―Thomas Jefferson

Have you ever almost burned your house down?

If you have, I am quite sorry. Especially if you succeeded. I was fortunate enough not to have burned my house to the ground when I was eight years old ... though it seems like I certainly tried to do so.

Like many kids enthralled by the mystery of fire, I had just been playing around. Seeing how I could easily put the flame out even with my bare hands. But the playing didn’t last. Unlike the earlier ‘practice’ flames, the last one turned into three-foot flame nibbling yellow-blue destruction on our house’s side panels. I couldn’t tamp them down like I had earlier, my previous efforts seemed to be fruitless. The flames just kept on getting bigger and hungrier. They were only a few seconds away from engulfing the house.

I had to do something, anything, to put the fire out. I knew what it might do, despite my earlier actions. I had to put out the fire.

Image by Myriams-Fotos

I looked around. As has happened many nights during the summer, a small circle of water jetted out to feed the backyard’s lawn. It wasn’t too far from me. Without thought, I bolted to pick it up, running around the tree to help it reach the flame. After unscrewing the spigot I squeezed my thumb on the hose’s end to produce a high-pressure-targeted spray that I used to quench the fire’s growing danger. The water saved the house from fire but it didn’t save me from my youthful naïveté.

As if it were sitcom-timed, my mom just came back from the grocery store and opened the door to the backyard. She called my name. And then when I called back and came to her she asked me: “Do you smell smoke?”

A nonchalant ruffian child replied, “No.”

My mom seemed to believe the easy lie.

“OK, well, it’s getting dark and I need you to set the table. Come in, please.” My situation was precarious, I couldn’t arouse suspicion by staying out what I needed to protect myself from the obvious conflagratory transgression. I needed to clean up the burnt evidence, but I couldn’t disobey. I went inside, consoling myself with the knowledge that I would be able to do something to fix the situation. I just had to wake up tomorrow and

We had a fine dinner, and I went to sleep ready to do what I had to do the next day to hide my stupidity.

I woke up with my dad’s voice calling my name until I could respond with a child’s dreary voice. He then asked me something I hadn’t expected.

“Ian, do you know anything about the scorch marks on the side of the house?”

I jolted awake as memories of the day before came burning back into my mind. My unworded thoughts raised their vocal warnings: I’m gonna get caught! Or was I? Maybe I can get away with this? I could stall with sleepiness as an excuse. I simply had to respond with one word.


My dad seemed to believe my answer and went away. I started thinking about potential solutions on how to deal with it. Maybe he would leave for work and I could clean it up and he would forget about it? My imagined solutions would not be possible. He returned after a few minutes to ask the question again.

Photo by Sean Quillen

I answered the same: “No.”

I dared not leave my room. Hopefully he would go to work and I could escape this. Somehow.

He came back one final time and asked again in his ‘I know you're lying’ voice. I was caught, and I could not get out of the little trouble I got myself into. I had to answer everything to him. I was grounded for only two weeks. One week for each day I lied.

It sucks when you get caught in a lie ... But, you know, it sucks more when you don’t get caught. Why? Because you don’t learn the value of honesty. Honesty to others. Honesty to yourself.

Definition of Honesty

You probably have an established gut feeling about what honesty is. Can you explain it to someone else so they might understand how you see it? Do you have stories where you have been dishonest?

You may have been dishonest to cover up some truth that would make you look bad. Your stories might be so embarrassing that you might not share it with anyone. You might even want to forget your deception completely. But when you can take a minute to think about your own stories, I bet you understand internally what honesty is. How might we explain it though?

It might be easy to understand honesty by looking at the definition. Merriam Webster gave the two following definitions:

  1. Adherence to facts: sincerity.

  2. Fairness and straightforwardness of conduct.

These definitions seem to overlap with my flaming dishonesty. The definitions probably align with some of the dishonest experiences that you’ve had too. The definitions seem to be solid and sensible, but to me it’s just like ordering a pizza and getting an empty box: this definition fails to deliver a topping-smothered, well-baked pie. To dig deeper into what honesty is, we should better understand what ‘facts’ are and what ‘fairness and straightforwardness of conduct’ means.

Image by Anemone123

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