How many of us can recall hearing this message when we were kids? As an elementary school student, I remember being puzzled by this intonation. While I understood the difference between being good or bad, as well as the distinction between honesty and dishonesty, the notion that cheating on a test or cribbing a writing assignment wouldn’t benefit me seems illogical. Cheating, I believed, was wrong, but also beneficial. If someone borrowed a friend’s homework, or swiped a test answer off a neighbor’s paper, it was obvious that this generated a benefit in the form of a completed assignment or a higher exam grade. Simply stated, cheating worked.
So why was the clichéd message of today’s title so often recited to children by their teachers and parents? The answer lies in the difference between short-term vs. long-term consequences. The fact is that cheating, as well as lying and all other forms of dishonesty, generally produces short-term benefits, but also long-term painful consequences. The child who borrows a friend’s homework does not experience the learning inherent in completing the task. The knowledge acquired in studying is circumvented when an individual steals answers from a classmate. Adults, understanding the long-term consequences of dishonesty, have attempted to convey this wisdom to their short-term thinking charges. In the old tale of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the attraction he gained via his lies was trumped by the life he lost because the townspeople ceased to believe him.
The message of the above paragraphs is both accurate and obvious, isn’t it? As adults, we get the message about the importance of honesty. After all, we are no longer kids.
Oh really? We need only look to our country’s recent political history to see that even powerful leaders can fail to learn the lesson preached to them in grade school. Historians agree that President Nixon’s unprecedented fall from grace had more to do with the lying and cover-up than the original Watergate caper itself. President Clinton, despite his charismatic style, also destroyed his personal reputation by an inability to be truthful about his personal shortcomings. There exists myriad examples of adult demise that flowed from an inability to simply “’fess up” and trust that forgiveness is available when honesty is proffered. In fact, the 20th century dictum that “the cover-up (lie) is worse than the original offense,” has risen to the level of conventional wisdom itself.
In the film, “Flight,” Denzel Washington vividly portrays a skillful airplane pilot who is also an alcoholic. His drinking had cost him his marriage as well as the respect of his son. In fact, his only level of competence and functionality could be found in his talent as a pilot.
Denzel’s character quickly goes from being a hero to a potential felon when he lands a disabled plane, saving most of the passengers. However, routine blood testing reveals that Denzel was highly intoxicated when he performed his miraculous emergency landing. Hero status devolves into being a courtroom defendant. However, his skillful (but dishonest) attorneys have the evidence of his intoxication excluded on a legal technicality. All the pilot needs to do is deny being drunk that day, and he will be in the clear.
At the film’s climatic scene, the pilot refuses to lie. He admits that he was drunk on the day of the plane crash. His honesty costs him his freedom, as he goes to prison for his offense. But in the end, his truthfulness also allows him to accept his addiction, and he becomes sober. His relationship with his son is restored. His honesty has retrieved his dignity and his sense of self-worth.
The good news is that few of us will have to go to prison for our honesty and personal reclamation. The film’s ironic title captures the difficult, but redemptive, journey that personal integrity guides us through.
Try it; you’ll like it! More importantly, you’ll like yourself better for the decision.