“Honesty is the cornerstone of all success, without which confidence and ability to perform shall cease to exist.” – May Kay Ash
There was this story about Hollywood actor Burt Lancaster (who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in 1960’s Elmer Gantry) which I remember fondly. The story, written by Anne Heagney, happened before he was still a little boy.
Burt grew up in East Harlem and spent much of his time on the streets. Since his parents were poor, he had the usual cravings for cream puffs, chocolates, and ice cream. At that time, a quarter looked big to him.
One day, as Burt stood on a corner in front of a bank, he looked down and saw a $20 bill lying in the gutter. It was the largest amount of money he had ever set on and his heart fairly jumped for joy at his great discovery.
He leaned down, picked up the bill and put it in his pocket. He was thinking of the joy it would give his mother when he ran home with his “prize.” As he stood there dreaming of the delicious things he could now buy, an elderly lady approached him.
Burt noticed how worried and upset she looked. “You didn’t see a $20 bill, did you sonny?” she inquired. And she explained how she had cashed a check for that amount at the bank to buy some articles that were badly needed for her family. She was in tears when she said, “I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t find it. I must have dropped it near here somewhere…”
Burt’s fingers closed on the bill; a picture flashed through his mind of the good things all that money could buy. He must have been strongly tempted to keep what he’d found even though he knew it would be wrong. Still, he could have said, “Sorry, lady, I didn’t see your money.”
Instead, Burt pulled out the $20 bill. “You did lose it here, Ma’am. I found it,” he said and then handed over the twenty-dollar bill.
The look of joy on her tired, anxious face sent a warm glow to his heart. She thanked him profusely and went away with a light step. According to the man who would later on become one of the biggest stars in the film capital of the world, “it was one of the happiest memories of my life.”
What Burt Lancaster displayed was honesty all the way. And the words of one of the characters in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights come to mind: “Honest people don’t hide their deeds.”
American president Thomas Jefferson once said: “Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.” Humorist novelist Mark Twain gave some thought on how to find an honest person: “There’s one way to find out if a man is honest: ask him; if he says yes, you know he’s crooked.”
Honesty, so goes a popular saying, is the best policy. And Billy Joel sang of honesty as “such a lonely word.” The reason: “everyone is so untrue.” That’s why American billionaire Warren Buffet had said: “Honesty is a very expensive gift. Don’t expect it from cheap people.”
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie once said in an interview: “I’m just honest, I like that I don’t have to worry about what I say. I really don’t have the time or energy to pretend and I don’t want to live that way.”
It reminds me of Dr. Madison Sarratt, who taught mathematics at Vanderbilt University for many years. Before giving a test, he would admonish his class something like this: “Today, I am giving two examinations – one in trigonometry and the other in honesty. I hope you will pass them both.
“If you must fail one, fail trigonometry,” he suggested. “There are many people in the world who can’t pass trigonometry, but there is no one who can’t pass the examination of honesty.”
“The truth brings with it a great measure of absolution,” pointed out R.D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist.
Three years ago, a pastor from another city accepted a call to a church in Davao. A week after he arrived, he decided to roam around the city. He rode a jeepney and gave the driver a crispy twenty-peso bill. There were so many passengers and it took the driver two minutes before he was able to give the pastor his change.
The pastor counted the change and he discovered that the driver had accidentally given him a peso more than what he was to receive. As he considered what to do, he thought to himself, “You’d better give the peso back. It would be wrong to keep it.”
Then he thought, “Oh, forget it, it’s only a peso. Who would worry about this little amount? Anyway, the driver gets too much fare; he will never miss it. Accept it as a ‘gift from God’ and keep quiet.”
Then he was almost at his destination, he went near to the driver and handed the peso. “Here, you gave me too much change,” he said.
The driver, with a smile, replied, “Aren’t you the new pastor near our area? I have been thinking a lot lately about going somewhere to worship. I just wanted to see what you would do if I gave you too much change. I’ll see you at church on Sunday.”
“There is no well-defined boundary between honesty and dishonesty,” American author O. Henry pointed out. “The frontiers of one blend with the outside limits of the other, and he who attempts to tread this dangerous ground may be sometimes in one domain and sometimes in the other.”
It reminds me of the story of two women riding a bus. One of them realized she hadn’t paid her fare yet. “I’ll go right up and pay it,” she said. “Why bother?” her companion told her. “You got away with it, so what?”
“I’ve found that honesty always pays,” the other said virtuously, and went up to pay the driver. After that, she went back to her place and told her companion. “See, I told you. Honesty really pays. I handed the driver 20 pesos and he gave me 40 pesos change.”
But that’s not the kind of honesty we want. Just remember the words of William Shakespeare. In All’s Well that Ends Well, the British playwright wrote: “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”