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    Mayo Mindfulness: The different flavors of honesty

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Dr. Amit Sood says, "With respect to honesty, people come in four different flavors."

Dear friend,

Honesty means speaking and living by the truth. With respect to honesty, people come in four different flavors. Some are habitually dishonest. Others choose to be honest as long as it serves their purpose. Still others are, barring extreme situations, committed to honesty, no matter whether it hurts or harms them. The fourth type of honesty is dumb or cruel honesty. If you know that your honesty is likely to start World War III or cause suffering for millions, then it might be best to keep your mouth shut.

The world is tired of habitual dishonesty. It doesn’t need dumb or cruel honesty either. Fortunately, both of these are rare. Most of us fit into the second or the third pattern, where we are honest as long as it serves our purpose or remain committed to honesty barring extreme situations.

Quite often, we shift between the second and third types depending on life’s happenings and the influence of role models. Consider yourself lucky today if you aren’t forced into dishonest thoughts, words, or actions. For example, imagine your child is crying from intense hunger and you can only get food by lying to someone. What would you do? Most likely you’d lie, wouldn’t you? I certainly would.

I have judged others for their dishonesty, not knowing their constraints. I shouldn’t judge that way. I should recognize that I can be honest today only because I am not challenged so. If I were placed in their precarious situation, I would likely slip. The intention, however, varies, and beyond a limit, it gets subjective. In the above example, if my two kids were crying from hunger and I hoarded food for twenty children just to be safe, despite knowing that the supplies were limited, then I am being dishonest.

Every twenty-four-karat-gold ornament is impure, because pure gold is too soft to become an ornament. So are we. The worthwhile impurity within us is that of altruistic dishonesty. When you are willing to let go of personal salvation for the larger good by not speaking a brutally honest and harmful truth, you are doing the righteous thing. Dishonesty, however, needs very careful judgment and utter selflessness.

Every day my circumstances do not force me to be dishonest is a day to be deeply grateful. I should not judge others if I find them dishonest until I know the details of what prompted them to act. I should also not gloat about my honesty. My honesty is a privilege, and I am deeply grateful for it.

May you never run into a situation where you are forced to be dishonest; may you not prematurely judge those you find dishonest.

Take care.

Follow @AmitSoodMD on Twitter.Dr. Sood is director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in Minnesota. He also chairs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative at Mayo Clinic.