Swamp Water Jurisprudence: Now let’s be sincere


by Judge Dennis Challeen

I couldn’t even guess how many times as a judge I’ve heard the words, “Judge, you will never see me in this courtroom again; I’ve learned my lesson.” In a month or two, sometimes sooner, there he is again, arrested for the same offense.

Those who study criminology tell us when chronic offenders say these words they are sincere — they believe it and want it to be true, but they don’t change their life patterns. Once the crisis passes, it’s back to hanging around with the same buddies, same places, caught up with the same irresponsible thinking.

The word “sincerity” means free of pretense or hypocrisy, being honest, genuine and truthful. The opposite is “insincerity,” meaning two-faced, phony, dishonest, and not portraying actual feelings.

We all fall into each of these categories once in a while.

Criminals constantly lie to themselves and to everyone else in order to try and escape from their irresponsibility. But ordinary citizens also lie to themselves and others almost on a daily basis. How many times have we heard someone say while on the telephone, “I’ll let you go now,” which should mean: I won’t take up any more of your time, when they may honestly mean they are bored with the conversation and want to hang up gracefully? Or they may say someone’s at the door or another call is waiting, which is possibly untrue and therefore dishonest. Yet, it is more gracious than their saying, “I’m bored with you and I’m going to hang up on you now.” Brutal sincerity can be overdone!

I’ve spent considerable time in the South on vacation and teaching criminal justice courses. Quite often I would hear upon leaving, “Y’all come to see us when you can.” At first, being a Northerner, I took this as a charming, honest invitation of sincere hospitality. I soon learned that was just a common everyday Southern expression — something they say but don’t intend or expect to be taken seriously.

Politicians routinely say in response to tragic deaths or events, “My heart, thoughts and prayers are with you.” Is this sincere or just a learned response to get them out of an awkward moment? It would be interesting to follow up and find out how much thought and praying these people actually do. Even more interesting would be to follow-up on how they vote on important legislation: that’s where their “sincerity” would truly matter to us all.

It’s kind of like the cashier in a box store who says as you pay and leave, “Have a nice day.” Is that sincere? Unless she’s one of those rare love-everybody kind of person, it’s likely that she’s been encouraged by management to say those words whether she believes them or not; it becomes a business ritual of insincere words.

I’m sure we all have said thank you for a gift we don’t want, won’t use, and wish the giver hadn’t bothered to buy; but we are usually polite and don’t want to leave hurt feelings, so it’s easier to lie. This is sometimes called a “white lie.” If we were perfectly honest we would say, “I know you meant well but I don’t wear these things; it would be best if you returned it and gave the refund to charity.” Honest, but we don’t say it. Why? Because we’re aware that sincerity itself can sometimes be hurtful, so it is more civilized to remain pleasant in awkward times.

The other morning my phone rang and a male with an artificially cheerful voice said: “Good morning Mr. Challeen [mispronouncing my last name]. How are you today?” My response: “Are you selling something?” Silence. “I don’t buy anything over the telephone, so you’re wasting both of our time.” He then shouted a two-word (blank-you) obscenity and hung up. I pondered whether the first part of his call was sincere or the latter part; I doubt the first. I’ve never felt that unsolicited phone sales calls are entitled to commandeer my time and attention, sincere or not.

The other evening I was watching a reality TV program called “Alone.” The featured character was talking to himself about how dangerous it would be if some accident happened to him, alone in this desolate wilderness. There had to be a photographer, a soundman and supporting crew with expensive equipment to produce this program, and radio contacts to rescue him if necessary. Alone he was not.

It’s hard to go through life being totally truthful. Most of us were brought up to be nice, but we should always try to be honest, even when feelings are hurt. One poet said it best:

Bring it on —
And let truth be my existence.
Value my life —
And tell me like it is.

Bark at me when I’m wrong —
And hug me when I’m right.
Praise me if I succeed —
And tell me if I fail.
Laugh at me if you think I’m funny —
And wink at me if you think I’m cute.
Yell at me if I ever hurt you —
And scold me if I’m ever bad.

Keep things real with me,
Because I want to be alive,
I want my world to be real —
And I want to see your spirit.
I want to hear you breathe —
And I want to know how you feel.

Don’t waste my time with insincerities.
Keep my world real.

-Giorge Leedy, “Uninhibited From Lust To Love”


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