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17 January 2010

Posted by DMC on 17 January 2010 in Diary |

Last evening, we received the telephone call that we have dreaded for some time. My mother’s 90 year old husband, Richard, (is he my stepfather once removed!?) was taken to hospital with a minor stroke — the second in two days. Fortunately, we have some very good friends in the area, indeed, I have known John and Anne Prytz since they both got married at 19, some 57 years ago. Anne is kindly holding the fort, looking after my mother and awaiting the outcome of the hospital tests. We will then have to decide what to do from this end.

I’ll say no more about the South African test match other than that it finished a day early with an ignominious defeat for England.

On early Sunday mornings, on Radio 4, Mark Tully frequently broadcasts a thought-provoking programme called Something Understood.This week the topic was Absolutely Honest from the New Unique Broadcasting Company Ltd. In this programme Mark Tully asks if absolute honesty is always the best policy and questions the philosopher, A C Grayling, about his suggestion, that dishonesty can sometimes even be virtuous. I advise my readers to listen to the whole of this broadcasts themselves, if they possibly can, but I reproduce here  a couple of extracts which I found particularly interesting which, of course, should be read in the context of the whole discussion. The topic was particularly interesting to me, in particular, as to how honest you are, or should be, with someone who is diagnosed with perhaps, say, a terminal illness. Let’s make the proposition even more difficult and say it was a very young person who has been diagnosed with an incurable disease and has only months to live.  First of all then, there was Eleanor Brown’s amusing, if somewhat unkind poem, on the subject of honesty, Bitcherel

You ask what I think of your new acquisition;
and since we are now to be ‘friends’,
I’ll strive to the full to cement my position
with honesty. Dear – it depends.

It depends upon taste, which must not be disputed;
for which of us does understand
why some like their furnishings pallid and muted,
their cookery wholesome, but bland?

There isn’t a law that a face should have features,
it’s just that they generally do;
God couldn’t give colour to all of his creatures,
and only gave wit to a few.

I’m sure she has qualities, much underrated,
that compensate amply for this,
along with a charm that is so understated
it’s easy for people to miss.

And if there are some who choose clothing to flatter
what beauties they think they possess,
when what’s underneath has no shape, does it matter
if there is no shape to the dress?

It’s not that I think she is boring, precisely,
that isn’t the word I would choose;
I know there are men who like girls who talk nicely
and always wear sensible shoes.

It’s not that I think she is vapid and silly;
it’s not that her voice makes me wince;
but – chilli con carne without any chilli
is only a plateful of mince…

I do hope that Mark Tully, for whom I have the greatest admiration, and  Prof Grayling, will forgive me for paraphrasing their very interesting discussion and hopefully getting somewhere near the honesty they were trying to demonstrate. If there is any  ambiguity in what I say, I can only plead with the reader to access the actual discussion for themselves.

Two researchers at Brunel University have suggested that there is no consensus in our society about ‘ What honestly is’.  Asked to comment on this,  A C Grayling wrote an article entitled,  Don’t Dismiss  Dishonestly It Can Be Virtuous. Grayling defined honesty ‘as the sincere attempt to stick to the truth, to tell the truth, to act with integrity, to deal with others fairly and justly’. He emphasised the importance of sincerity with the interests of others in mind. Mark Tully suggested there must be times when you honestly feel, you sincerely feel, that it is not right to tell the truth. Prof Grayling said he particularly liked what the Church of Scotland says, that there are times when to tell an untimely truth is a sin and suggested that you can do a great deal of harm to tell someone the truth at an inopportune moment. Take a simple example, suppose you’re halfway through a dinner party and your spouse says to you, ‘ how do I look’ and you think they look absolutely ghastly, this is the right moment not to say that.

So it can it be virtuous to be dishonest sometimes, provided the concept of sincerity is always present. So the corollary of this is, there are times when it is not right to be honest, even when you are asked for it or, it can be untimely tell the truth but sincerity can be very helpful too.

This extract from Anne Frank’s diary shows just  what a tangled tale the business of honesty is:

‘Oh my, another thing item has been added to my list of sins. Last night I was lying in bed, waiting for father to tuck me in and say my prayers with me, when mother came into the room, sat on my bed and asked very gently, Anne, Daddy isn’t ready, what if I listen to your prayers tonight? No, mumsie, I replied. Mother got up, stood beside my bed for a moment, and then slowly walked towards the door. Suddenly she turned, her face contorted with pain, and said, I don’t want to be angry with you I can’t make you love me. A few tears slid down her cheeks as she went out of the door. I lay still thinking how mean it was of me to reject her so cruelly but I also knew that I was incapable of answering her any other way. I can’t be a hypocrite and pray with her when I don’t feel like it.  It just doesn’t work that way. She cried half the night and didn’t get any sleep.

Father has avoided looking at me and, if his eyes  do happen to meet mine, I can read his unspoken words .How can you be so unkind? How can you make your mother so sad? Everyone expects me to apologise, but it’s not something I can apologise for because I told the truth and sooner or later mother was bound to find out anyway’.

Mark Tully suggests that there is a niggling feeling within us that makes us feel uncomfortable when we are dishonest. This discomfort is beautifully illustrated by Georgina Blake’s poem The Teacup Storm

When the seed
    of honesty
      fell
        to
          me

I should have walked straight by
Trampled it not heard its cry

The seed
    of honesty
      fell
        to
          me

I kicked it around
For I knew it instantly

I could not bear to hold
        it in
          my hand

For there was
    my tomorrow
    my wish
    my dream
    my sleep
    my scream
    my yesterday

The seed
      of honesty
        fell
          to
            me

As love
I could not eat until it
was planted
safely
    buried
      secretly
        watered

Then as if by torrential tropical
    sudden rain

It sprang to life
Cast a shadow by
    my window
Tempting me to pick its fruit
    a snow white
      rosy red
Once bitten would turn
    black
Trapped as Jack was I
    In the giant’s lair

Its aromatic taste told not
    of what would be
    until it flowered

Gently
    guillotining
      my
        existence

The seed
    of
      honesty
        fell
          to
            me

Then I could see
How…one person’s laughter is despair
      in another’s eyes
How …even with one word a page
      may stain

How … from a tiny drop of rain
      storms rage

Why was this seed not taken by bees
    Driven by seas
      Scattered
        by
          winds

Why fall
    to
      me?

Why?

When the seed
    of honesty
      fell
        to
          me

I should have walked straight by
Trampled it not heard its cry

The seed
    of honesty
      fell
        to
          me

Then I could see
How from a tiny drop of rain
    storms rage.

So there we have it, the moral dilemma of when dishonesty may be virtuous and the guilt that can be associated with it.

Today,  Sunday, was a particularly sociable one as we had arranged for Ali and Graham Mackrell to come and have a drink at lunchtime and Jane and Kit Orde-Powlett in the evening. Despite the potential problems on the home front with Richard, we decided to go ahead in the hope that all would be well, as indeed proved to be the case. Lantern Thatch was looking at its best. The iconic Christmas card thatched cottage with a blazing log fire glowing on the ancient oak timber framed sitting room – a welcoming sight. Much Bollinger was consumed.

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