Dishonesty is probably the single biggest obstacle to recovery. The Big Book suggests as much when it says that “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” Such people “are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty (p. 58).”
Understood as a defect of character, dishonesty is an ingrained, habitual disposition to intentionally and self-servingly misrepresent the truth. This affects not only what we say and do, but also what we think and feel, and not only with respect to others, but also with respect to ourselves. Indeed, as Bill W. tells us in the passage cited below, being dishonest with others almost always requires that we be dishonest with ourselves. We will always try to hide a bad motive underneath a good one (12&12, S10, p. 94), find a good reason to explain the wrong we do so that it doesn’t seem to be wrong.
In the form of self-deception, dishonesty is probably also the single biggest obstacle to making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We’re told that taking inventory is “a fact-finding and fact-facing process,” that “It is an effort to discover the truth” about ourselves (Big Book, p. 64). But if we are self-deceived, we don’t want to find or face the facts; we don’t want to discover the truth. We want to mask, conceal, distort, and otherwise manage and manipulate reality. We will only see what we want to see.
Of course, we won’t admit that’s what we’re doing. Often we won’t even know we're doing it. Such is the power of self-deception to render us opaque to ourselves. Hence the need to do our major inventories with a sponsor who can help us to spot the instances of dishonesty in the situations and relationships we examine. The sponsor will help us see through the deceptive ploys we utilize to hide the truth from ourselves: denial, rationalization, exaggeration, minimization, suppression, self-justification, and blame-shifting.
In the process of doing so, we will become increasingly good at recognizing the many manifestations of dishonesty in us. Dishonesty takes multiple forms, some quite blatant, others very subtle. Lying, cheating, and stealing are the most obvious. But even within these categories, there are many shades of dishonesty, some harder to detect and admit to than others.
Take lying. There are lies of commission, as when we actually tell a falsehood, and lies of omission, as when we simply fail to tell the truth. We may make a patently false statement, or we may deliberately provide inaccurate, partial, or misleading information; we may withhold the truth altogether, remain silent, be ambiguous, evasive, or vague, or we may fudge, waffle, or prevaricate; we may exaggerate, stretch, or play down the facts; we may say what a person wants to hear though we may not believe it ourselves; we may make a promise we don’t intend to keep or, more often, just fail to keep our word; we may pretend to be something we are not or to know something we don’t; we may hypocritically claim to believe one thing while practicing another; we may abstain from looking deeper into an issue because we are not really interested in knowing the truth about it, or because what we find may contradict what we believe or force us to make choices we don’t want to make; and so on ad infinitum. The possibilities are endless. They are equally manifold for cheating and stealing, as well as for the many other forms dishonesty takes, such as unfaithfulness, disloyalty, and betrayal.
Becoming good at taking inventory of the dishonesty in us requires therefore that we become acquainted with its multiple manifestations. For some of us, this may also involve expanding our vocabulary a bit: we cannot identify a form of dishonesty we cannot name. Conversely, naming it helps us to identify and understand it.
It also requires that we become familiar with the various drivers of dishonesty in us. These are always other defects of character or emotion. Pride, jealousy, envy, greed, sloth, and lust, for instance, can drive us to lie, cheat, and steal, or to harm others in ways that we must then try to cover up and hide from ourselves as well as from others. The same with anger, fear, guilt, and shame, among other emotions.
Thus, if we are doing an inventory of anger, resentment, and fear, as in the Big Book sample, we need to look into the ways those emotions and dishonesty interact with each other. In that sample, it is evident that the alcoholic’s problems stem from two blatant acts of dishonesty: cheating on his wife and stealing from his employer. His anger and resentment are a response to his being exposed for these acts; his fear a response to the consequent threats to his marriage, his home, and his job. At the same time, his anger enables him to shift blame and deny the real cause of his problems. It’s all their fault. His dishonesty causes him both to do wrong and to hide the wrong from himself.
Whatever the wrong we may have committed, and whatever the defects of character or emotion driving it, dishonesty will almost always be present. Our job as we take inventory is to detect it and understand its function. As we see and admit it, dishonesty diminishes and honesty grows. But because of the motivating role of other defects, it follows that dishonesty will also diminish to the extent that those defects do. We grow in honesty then by admitting, not only the specific manifestations of dishonesty in us, but the specific manifestations of the other defects that tend to generate it.
[Image: 17 William Street in Newark, N.J., first AA headquarters at office of "Honor Dealers," a car dealership owned by Hank P. where Bill W. wrote much of the Big Book and Ruth Hock typed it. For Ruth’s recollections of this and an audio of this post, please click on links.]