"What's that smell in this room ... Brick? Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room? ... There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity ... You can smell it. It smells like death."
- Big Daddy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the play by Tennessee Williams, is among the greatest of dramatic interpretations about trust, integrity and faith in the 20th century literary canon. It is a story about family relationships - father to son, husband to wife, brother to brother - and what happens when that most valued of moral ethics is violated.
Although Cat ends on a note of hope as the Pollitt family confronts the fears, lies and half-truths that they've lived with for years on their Southern plantation, the anguish we witness as they attempt to rekindle their faith in each other is almost too painful to bear. And Williams speculates that their future together is tenuous at best.
Unfortunately, we, too, spend most of our time dealing with mendacity. As Big Daddy tells his son, Brick:
|men • dac • ity |
noun the quality or state of being not truthful; a lie; falsehood
"Mendacity ... I could write a book on it. Mendacity. Look at all the lies that I got to put up with. Pretenses. Hypocrisy ... Boy, I've lived with mendacity ... You've got to live with it. There's nothin' to live with but mendacity. Is there?"
We learn ethical virtues at birth. We have innate faith in our mothers. We trust our fathers. We come to value integrity within the family circle. We receive assurances that promises will be kept.
Aristotle reminds us in Nicomachean Ethics that our entire lives revolve around these moral virtues, which are aligned with two questions: How ought I to act? and What kind of person ought I to be? Our concern in life, then, becomes a question of character: How do we overcome mediocrity with harmony and balance? Trust, faith and integrity are clear implications of a sound moral education.
We have a choice of perfecting or abandoning these values at various stages of our lives. Per Aristotle, once childhood yields the basic elements of morality through our parents and we learn from our teachers, in adolescence, right from wrong, we must study and understand moral nuance in the people we meet and the friends we make if we are to become mature adults.
In other words, we learn strength of character. We learn the value of trust. We come to understand the importance of faith. We appreciate integrity as the benchmark of relationships with others, as well as institutions and government.
Trust is reliance on the integrity, ability or character of a person or thing.
Trust is a commitment to care for another.
Trust is secure knowledge in the reliability and dependability of another.
Trust is assurance in another that allows one to assume discretion and confidentiality in relationships.
Trust is the foundation of all relationships. Without that security, there is no faith. Without faith, there is no integrity.
"What stood out for me was not only the trauma of the sexual abuse they suffered, but it was the breaking of the bond between a priest in a position of authority and an innocent child, which was so profoundly moving."
- Bishop William Gregory at the 2002 US Catholic Bishops Conference
The great American philosopher and psychologist, William James, wrote that we have the right to believe and trust, to know with certainty that a person or thing will not fail. In simple terms, he describes the formation of and justification for trust in The Will to Believe:
"We must come to some belief even if all the relevant evidence is not in. If I am on a mountain trail, faced with an icy ledge to cross, and do not know whether I can make it, I may be forced to consider the question whether I can or should believe that I can cross the ledge. This is a "momentous" question: if I am wrong I may fall to my death, and if I believe rightly that I can cross the ledge, my holding of the belief may itself contribute to my success."
Ultimately, trust implies a depth and an assurance of feeling that is based often on inconclusive evidence. None of us becomes an adult and retains the perfect trust we were born with. But that doesn't mean we have to go to the opposite extreme.
In my life, I've dealt squarely with the abrogation of trust, the lack of integrity and the loss of faith. In my childhood, the sexual assault perpetrated by a Roman Catholic priest destroyed all that trust implies in a personal relationship: accountability, confidence, credibility, conviction, reliance, certainty, credence, security.
This crisis transformed my mental and physical well-being. It severely limited my ability to deal effectively with others for a numbers of years - family, colleagues and friends, even the guy on the freeway who cut in front of me. This violation of trust was a profound loss of innocence, requiring a long period of mourning before I could start to recover my self-will and strength to carry on. Good fortune led me to a nurturing environment where I could recapture a renewed sense of purpose that has brought me to today.
Many others I've met in the last decade through SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) have been less fortunate. Unable to cope with the crimes committed against them as children, they are lost to chemical dependency, alcohol, depression, anger and suicide. They cannot separate truth from mendacity: all those lies to cover up more lies. They are leading lives of abandoned hope and broken promises with no faith in the future.
|They cannot separate truth from mendacity: All those lies to cover up more lies.|
As Big Daddy, Big Mama, Brick, Maggie ("The Cat") and other characters testify in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, trust, integrity and faith define who we are and how we view the world and the people we encounter. Relying on these points of the moral compass, an individual can track his own way within his community. Balancing the powerful pull of the opinions of others is an internal force, steadying and focusing personal decisions.
This is where I am today and, perhaps, the Old Testament prophet, Micah (6:8), best describes my outlook on life:
"You have been told, O man, what is good
and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do right and to love goodness,
and to walk humbly with your God."
I like to think that I've come full circle, albeit with skepticism. I now have a sense of certainty and conviction about my purpose in life, because I'm confident in the commitment I've made with those I love and cherish. I am able to trust once more, because I know myself and the character, integrity and strength of those with whom I will share my future, particularly my wife and children. I am a lucky man.