"Honesty," he answers.
He very keenly remembers that one day in sixth grade, and will remember it for the rest of his life. He was ten, and there was a playground to play on during lunch, and he remembers well the monkey bars and the swings and the sequence of events: the other kid playing on the monkey bars, the kid falling, the kid crying, and then him standing there, feeling compelled to say something as the kid looks at him, sniffling.
Instead of saying, "hey, it'll be alright," or "hey, are you okay," or "hey, [consoling and human thing here]" he says:
"Hey, don't be such a crybaby."
Of course it doesn't go over well, and he remembers the teacher glaring at him and telling him to leave, and — more importantly to him — of course Mike didn't stop crying.
The easy explanation is that he's a dick — and he probably was, especially back then — but it wasn't done out of malice. You see, he remembers feeling guilty about it afterwards, feeling confused.
If you could freeze time and ask him why he said what he did, you'd get an answer that it wasn't done out of malice, or to make fun of Mike, one of the people he'd consider almost-friends (he doesn't get real ones until high school). What it was supposed to do was make Mike aware that it was a public space, and that there were people watching, and that tears were supposed to be shed in private, not in public.
He'd probably ask you why Mike kept crying, even when, in his ten year old words, "he shouldn't have".
What he learns from that event is that he's pretty bad at understanding people, so for the next few years, he resolves to get better at it.
"Is there one in every situation, in every circumstance?"
"Mmmm — it's hard to say. I think, probably, the answer is that there is one, but often it's unknowable. You may try to get close to it, but you never really know for sure."
Eight years later, he's in college, sophomore year, and has a debate partner that he does well with — they individually win novice speaker awards and together manage to make the quarterfinals of some of the bigger debate tournaments despite it being their first year doing debate. They're not the best in the world — that honor is reserved for Oxford kids and maybe Harvard and MIT — but they're pretty decent, especially out of the state schools.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they're now both in law.
It's one Saturday night at Swarthmore college where the debating is done for the day that they find themselves in "temporary accomodations". In Swarthmore's case, who aren't great with places to put visiting debaters, it happens to be on a linoleum floor in what appears to be a cafe. Not the best, certainly.
He doesn't remember what he says, really. Probably a pointed comment about something or other, but the specifics there are irrelevant.
What he remembers is what his debate partner, who has been with him now for almost eight months, says to him in return:
"You know, you're a huge dick, and no one likes you, right?"
And while he knows that, yes, sometimes he's kind of a dick, he doesn't know where this comes from. Out of the blue, and it feels like all of the strings are cut. He had painted himself a picture of success: opinions editor of the school daily newspaper, working another job with the school tech support, balancing two jobs and class and debate as an extracurricular.
But with one sentence, his debate partner tears away all of the successes and leaves him with only the failures: he realizes that he doesn't have more than a few friends, doesn't have more than a few people that he trusts — or that trusts him.
What he learns from that event is hard to say, but it leads to a reevaluation of his life, again. It leads to a year of almost failing out of college, a year of rebuilding, and eventually a move to a different coast.
The move, though, is interesting: he moves with a group of friends, a group of people that he trusts, and, perhaps, a group of people who trusts him in return.
"Is it honest, though, what you're doing? Just because it's the 'truth' — or a truth, really — what happens when you're not being honest for the sake of being honest, but instead because you're using it as a weapon?"
"Nonsense," he would've said, once upon a time — ten years ago, five years ago, a year ago...perhaps even a week ago. "Honesty is an absolute value."
Now, though, he turns his palms upwards, a mea culpa.
"Nothing lives in a vacuum, and honesty doesn't exculpate someone from doing wrong."
"Friends are kind to one another. Friends don't push on boundaries, or prey on weaknesses. This isn't friendship.
Until you are willing to accept and acknowledge that you could stand to be kinder, not just to me but to most of those you interact with online, the pros of being your friend don't outweigh the cons."
He's initially resistant to it. "But it would be dishonest," he writes back petulantly, and lays out his philosophy in dealing with things as if this is a courtroom, as if it's a battle to be won. They trade emails.
On Saturday, a coworker calls it fair criticism, and he spends the night brooding on it, not sleeping until five in the morning.
On Sunday, he tells his roommate the story at dinner and his roommate agrees with it too, and they have a long conversation on the values of friendship, the responsibilities, the requirements, and at the end of it, he knows that he needs to apologize.
On Monday, a peer assessment lands on his desk:
"On a few occasions I've seen him do an un-company-like, un-him-like thing: take an exceedingly harsh tone with a particular individual on the team as the result of mistakes that the person made. It's not as if strong, corrective feedback wasn't needed; attention to detail and careful judgment on these cases are crucial. But I think his frustration got the better of him on these occasions, and his style crossed the line into being disrespectful on a personal level. The main effect on the recipient seemed to be shame and humiliation; in my experience, no one has gotten better by being told they suck. It was also discomfiting and disruptive for other people who were present (at least it was for me). The irony of all this is that the intensity of his response surely came from two good places: his unflinching commitment to keeping the company safe and the great well of empathy he has. He cares about this person and him to succeed."
And so he does apologize, slowly and haltingly, but it comes out. And she — well, she's a better person than he is. She gives him something to aspire to.
He knows, already, that he'll remember this weekend for the rest of his life, that it will join the other moments that his life turns on, the other sharp changes of path, the other moments that he's greatly wronged someone. He reflects that it's yet another time to reevaluate his priorities, his goals, his personality.
It's not a great feeling, to admit that you've wrong; it's even worse to know as a capital-t Truth that you've wronged someone — someone that called you a friend.
What he learns from this — well, it's too early to tell, isn't it? Perhaps he learns nothing; perhaps he changes so completely in a few years that a friend wouldn't even recognize the person that he used to be. The truth, as it were, is probably somewhere in between.
"What do you think you'll learn from this?"
"I don't know. I told a friend that I was never going to be in danger of being too nice, that I'll always slip towards being cruel, that perhaps in a week from now I'll have rationalized it all away. And he shook his head and told me that if it was going to be rationalized away, it would've happened already, that you don't stew on something like this and then decide that nothing will happen."
"And do you believe him?"
"What I believe is that the last time I messed up, I didn't have a friend like him I could talk to about it. I have people to tell me when I mess up, who are honest with me and who are willing to talk about it. So, yes, I believe him."
"Should always be tempered with kindness — with love."