Truthfulness as a Possible Defect
— What a confusing; thing it is that opposite moral qualities shade so almost imperceptibly into each other! Abstractly considered, good and evil stand in strict mutual contradiction ; but when we come to particulars, it appears that one vice is often only another virtue carried to excess. It is a wise man who can tell exactly when he ceases to be firm and begins to be obstinate ; while in all theological quarrels (what outsider has not observed the fact ?) neither party finds it difficult to perceive that the inflexible conscientiousness of the other side is in the main nothing better than an unregenerate passion for having one’s own way ; and a like ambiguity (which has at least the advantage of enabling us to think more complacently of ourselves than otherwise might be possible) pervades the whole round of human motives and conduct. Stinginess is inordinate frugality; laziness, a kind of immoderate good-nature ; swindling, an over-development or misapplication of shrewdness. Even the cardinal virtue of honesty needs to be kept within bounds. Dishonesty is a bad neighbor ; it is outrageous to have to watch one’s coal-bin ; but, on the other hand, who has not suffered at times under the tongue of some well-meaning Mr. Toohonest ?
I have just come from an interview with one of my every-day acquaintances, a man who makes it his business to keep me in mind of my faults. His favorite Scripture (I have no question, although I never heard him quote it) is Proverbs xxvii. 6. We have known each other, this worthy neighbor and I, for many years. He passes for an excellent citizen ; and for myself, I join in the general verdict — with a measure of reserve. If I were as hungry after personal perfection as all good people are supposed to be, I should probably value my every meeting with him as a means of grace ; but speaking as a natural man, I must confess that I have sometimes found it no hardship to dispense with his society. Perhaps it would hit the mark to say, in ladies’ language, that I esteem him, but cannot love him ; or, in men’s language, that I love him, hut cannot like him. When he looked at my last new horse, the other day, and declared offhand, in a perfectly indifferent tone, — as if it were nothing to him either way. — that it was too had I had been taken in again, I could not help thinking for a moment that he had no special call to criticise either my horse or my business sagacity. Again, when he told me, last month, that my story in the — magazine was well enough, but rather commonplace (why need he have read it, if he did n’t like it ?), while my unfortunate mannerisms of style were plainly growing upon me, I fear that my smiling rejoinder did not sound so altogether spontaneous as I endeavored to make it.
He does not say any of these things in an unfriendly spirit; but neither does he seem (to me, at least, and at the time) to be influenced by the contrary feeling. In fact, he is a Laodicean ; he talks without feeling, though it would be putting it too severely, perhaps, to call him unfeeking. His heart is “ in the right place,” for aught I know, but it has very little to say for itself. He wants imagination. All his views are purely intellectual. He picks to pieces your half-dry sonnet, — if you are foolish enough to show it to him, — as if he were checking a ledger account, and mentions a piece of misbehavior or a personal defect in a tone such as one might use in commenting upon yesterday’s weather. “ What a malapropos speech that was of yours to Mrs.—, last evening ! The whole town is laughing about it.” Thus he remarked amiably half an hour ago, precisely as if he had said, “ Whew! It’s a hot day, is n’t it ? ”
Such plainness of speech is in one aspect highly complimentary. It takes for granted that I am not vain or supersensitive. “ You are a man,” it seems to say, “ and can safely be dealt with accordingly ; ” but I sometimes feel that I would rather be taken for a man, and not treated accordingly. Perhaps, if I can express myself, the truth is something like this : I do not wish — by my familiar acquaintances, that is — to be looked upon simply as a man in the abstract, a sort of Tom, Dick, or Harry, one of forty millions, but as a person, personally known and regarded ; in short, as a friend. I wonder whether it really is childish to dislike hearing one’s weaknesses bluntly remarked upon. If they were of a sort to be corrected, and I were under thirty, no doubt it might be a kindness to call my attention to them, — though, even at that, a little delicacy of treatment would not come amiss ; but if I am not a great poet, nor an elegant man of the world, why be forever advertising me of the painful and irreversible fact ? Nobody thinks it polite to talk to a hunchback about his deformity.
So, as I say, I like my outspoken neighbor, but am compelled to file some exceptions. I would n’t have him soil his conscience with a falsehood ; but one may be sufficiently truthful, I do believe, without saying everything that comes into one’s head.
“ You can’t bear to be told of your faults, can you ? ” he broke out, the other day. A very considerate and soothing remark ! I had it at my tongue’s end to answer that I ought to be able to hear it by this time, after ten years of practice under such a tutor. But I restrained myself. Uncomfortable as he sometimes makes me, I should be sorry to drive him away altogether, — if such a thing were possible. Medicine has a prescriptive right to be more or less offensive, but it is prudent to keep a little of it in the house. One need never be without compliments, if lie is willing to bid for them, and is not too particular about their sincerity. That is a game of give and take at which nearly everybody knows how to play. But fault-finders (fault-finders to one’s face, I mean) are not to be picked up at every corner. Deficient in poverty of spirit as I still am, notwithstanding my faithful mentor, there is no predicting what I might become were I left to the doubtful mercies of a dissembling world. " Let the righteous smite me ; it shall be a kindness : and let him reprove me ; it shall be an excellent oil.” I repeat the text bravely ; but it sounds, somehow, like a malediction, and even with the words on my lips, I catch myself ducking my head. Poor human nature ! The wisest of men do not always like best what is best for them.