The Role of Honesty in Recovery

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“We tell lies when we are afraid ... afraid of what we don’t know, afraid of what others would think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing we fear grows stronger.”
– Tad Williams

The recovery process is often summed up as “Trust God, Clean House, and Serve Others.” The fourth principle, as it correlates to the Fourth Step, is self-honesty–the absolutely critical, often difficult, starting point when cleaning house.

In many ways, alcoholics and addicts first broach the principle of self-honesty when making the admission of powerlessness and unmanageability of life in the First Step. But it is when we approach the “house cleaning” steps, starting with Step Four, that a mindset of honesty is paramount.

A lifetime of white lies, gray lies and black lies, years of deception and rationalization, all mar the addict’s ability to get real and get honest. It is no easy task. But as millions in recovery can attest, honesty sets us free

Frederick II, an 18th-century king of Prussia, once travelled to Berlin in order to inspect its largest prison. As he entered the main yard he was beset with the desperate pleas of those imprisoned. They literally fell to their knees before him and bewailed their unjust imprisonment. While listening to prisoner after prisoner claim their innocence, Frederick noted a solitary figure off in the distance; a prisoner who saw no need to participate in the commotion.

Making his way to this lone prisoner, Frederick demanded, “Why are you here?”
“Armed robbery, Your Majesty.”

“Are you guilty of this charge?” the king asked.

“Oh yes, indeed, Your Majesty. I most definitely deserve my punishment.”

Upon hearing this admission, Frederick motioned for the jailer. “Release this man at once,” he said. “I will not have him corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy this prison.”

Like this man, we are only freed of our addictions when we go against that warped self-interest and pattern of rationalization that has kept us imprisoned for so long. Dishonesty, driven by a thousand forms of fear, keeps us sick. It is imperative that we get honest with ourselves and others.

Often, getting honest seems counter intuitive. There is this persona we feel we need to present in order to get a head in life. S. I. McMillen, in his book None of These Diseases,tells a story of a young woman who wanted to go to college, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application that asked, “Are you a leader?” Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, “No,” and returned the application, expecting the worst.

To her surprise, she received this letter from the college: “Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.”

Many of us have been conditioned by life experiences to believe that honesty and frankness make us vulnerable. I am reminded of a playground experience in the third or fourth grade. Approached by some of my more athletic peers, I was challenged to see if I could place the palm of my left hand squarely on my left shoulder. I did so easily … and they laughed loudly for all to hear. Then they pointed out that such an act was impossible for them as their growing muscles prevented them from doing so. I noted that for the remainder of recess anyone else they approached with the same challenge feigned the inability to touch their shoulder, even though many were as scrawny as me. From an early age we are conditioned to be inauthentic.

We may call it being shrewd. We may call it self-preservation. Regardless, a lifetime of spin and deception has to be overcome if we are to honestly assess our lives, our fears, our resentments and our character defects on the road to recovery. The double-mindedness, the rationalizations, the cover-ups, the justifications and the excuses all need to be pulled kicking and screaming into the sunlight of the truth.

I picture honesty as an old fashioned balanced scale. On the one side we place blocks labeled with what we value or believe. One the other side we place blocks labeled with actions that correspond to those values and beliefs. Are we in balance? Or are there not enough offsetting actions?

Too often as addicts our actual self is not in balance with our ideal self. The scale is tipped dramatically. We are out of whack. A condition known as cognitive dissonance emerges. We say, for example, that we want sobriety, but twelve shots of tequila later there is a dissonance between our ideal and our actions. The house cleaning steps are an exercise in dissonance reduction. We look at our actions and, for many, with the help of a sponsor and a Higher Power, work to bring them into alignment with our ideal selves. To reduce this dissonance we have to get honest about how we really are behaving. This is never as easy as it might sound. We see dishonesty in others, but often have major blind spots as we examine ourselves. That why sponsorship, prayer and meditation or reflection are so important.

Returning to the balanced scales again, I am reminded of a story that depicts how we often see dishonesty in others when we should be looking at ourselves. There was a dispute in England years ago between a baker and a farmer. The baker sued the farmer claiming that though the farmer initially sold him full pound blocks of butter, he began skimping on what he sold until it gradually got whittled down to as little as three quarters of a pound, though still charging for a full pound.

The farmer, in his defense, said to the judge, “Your Honor, I only have a balanced scale to measure the butter. I always put the baker’s pound loaf of bread on the other side of the scale to measure out my pound of butter.”

If you’re dishonest, you’re not alone. We tend to start early in life. Penn State researcher Dr. Nancy Darling reports 98% of teens studied reported lying to their parents. They lied about what they spent their allowances on, whether they’d started dating, what movie they went to, and whom they went with. They lied about alcohol and drug use, about whether they were hanging out with friends their parents disapproved of, about how they spent their afternoons while their parents were at work, and about whether chaperones were in attendance at a party. Yet 98% of teens say trust and honesty are essential in a personal relationship. Depending on their ages, 96 to 98% say lying is morally wrong.

The most disturbing reason children lie is that parents teach them to. When adults are asked to keep diaries of their own lies, they admit to about one lie per every social interaction, which works out to one per day on average. Encouraged to tell so many white lies and hearing so many others, children gradually get comfortable with being disingenuous. (Source: New York Magazine, 2/10/08)

When addiction takes hold, the little white lies tend to get a lot darker. Like many, I got to the point where I would lie when it would serve me better to tell the truth. I literally loved to lie, Putting the plug in the jug didn’t automatically make me a truth telling machine. It’s been a journey marked with successes and stumbles. But I have found that inviting the Divine in gets much easier when my house is clean.

When it comes to honest, self-honesty or otherwise, I often miss the mark, I reflect on the famous story of Cleveland Stroud when it’s time to reset the ideal. In 1987, his eighteenth year as a coach and teacher, Stroud led the Blue Collar Bulldogs basketball team to the Georgia state championship. Stroud recalls that “it was the perfect night” when they won. “A night you dream of.” He was carried around the gym on the shoulders of his triumphant players. Parent beamed with pride. The local paper put his picture on the front page.

But the excitement was short-lived.

Two months after the championship, during a routine grade check, Stroud discovered that one player was academically ineligible. The player had only played 45 seconds during the first of five regional qualifying tournament games. The player, ironically, had recently been promoted from the junior varsity squad when several starters had been deemed academically ineligible. The player only appeared near the end of one game, in “garbage time” when the Bulldogs led by 33 points. But he did play in violation of the rules.

Stroud says, “I thought it was all ruined. I went through a phase where I was really depressed.” Yet, he realized there was more to coaching than just wins. He was a teacher first. His commitment to molding boys into men led him to the right decision. “Winning is the most important thing for any coach,” he says. “But your principles have to be higher than your goals.” Stroud notified the league of the error and the trophy was forfeited. Explaining the decision to the crestfallen team, he told them, “You’ve got to do what is honest, what is right, and what the rules say. People forget the scores of basketball games, but they don’t ever forget what you are made of.”

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