What My Father Taught Me

girl-791729_1280My father had more integrity than any person I’ve ever known. He never lied, never embellished, never sugarcoated, never cut corners, never deviated even a little from the truth, and never marched to anyone’s drum but his own. His favorite adage, which he lived by unerringly, was from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “To thine own self be true, and it shall follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”My father taught me to live that way, too, even when being truthful was costly to me. The first time that lesson came home to me in a powerful way was when I was in eighth grade.At the start of the school year, I had been thrilled to be accepted into a group of seven girls who were among the most popular kids in our grade. I felt that I had arrived! But I became increasingly disenchanted with them, because one of their favorite pastimes was gossiping, usually disparagingly, about the other eighth-grade girls. I didn’t join in, but I also failed to say what I was thinking—that their backbiting was mean-spirited and not all right with me. I didn’t want to do anything that might risk losing the group’s friendship.One evening, after sitting silently through a particularly cruel and callous roasting of a girl I secretly liked, I sought my father’s advice. My father responded by turning the table and asking me what I thought was the right thing to do. I replied that I knew what was right—to speak out against the gossiping—but I was afraid to act on it for fear of turning off my friends. My father then asked, “What is more important to you: standing up for what you believe, or keeping friends who behave in ways that you know are wrong?”A few days later, I was with my friends when they began belittling a classmate. I interrupted and told them I felt it wasn’t right to speak badly of a person behind her back. There was an awkward silence. I could tell that they didn’t welcome my intervention. The same scenario played out on a few more occasions—their gossiping and my objecting. With each instance, I felt a growing distance between the group and me. I realized that these girls used badmouthing others as a way of bonding, feeling superior, and being exclusive. (Since then, I’ve observed this unhealthy dynamic in groups many, many times.) I decided this was not a club I wished to belong to, and drifted away from the group.That was the start of a lifelong commitment to being honest and straightforward. It has not always been easy. Sometimes it would’ve been much simpler and certainly more comfortable for me to either say nothing or tell people what they wanted to hear. But then I recall the choice my father posed to me: speak up, or remain silent in the face of what I know to be wrong. Although my directness has cost me some relationships, I’ve found that the people I most like and respect are the people who value my honesty.