One of the myths our county was founded upon is the story of George Washington, the first president, and the cherry tree.
Most of us heard the story when we began elementary school - that when George Washington was a boy he chopped down his father’s prized cherry tree. When confronted by his father, George said, the story goes, “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet.”
We’ll never know if this really happened - but what did happen is that our first president is revered as a truth-teller, a man of integrity. Truth telling, integrity, were valuable qualities on which a great nation could be built.
Webster defines truth as a: quality or state of being true; sincerity, genuineness, honesty, quality of being in accordance with experience, facts, or reality; conformity with fact; reality, actual existence. And, integrity is defined as a: quality or state of being complete; unbroken condition, wholeness, entirety. The quality or state of being unimpaired; perfect condition, soundness.
Apparently, in George Washington’s time, as in our own time, truth telling and integrity were exceptional, outstanding. Truth telling takes courage - courage to face the consequences of stating the truth. I wonder how George’s father provided the environment where George could find the courage to speak the truth. The father could handle the truth - his son’s integrity was safe with him. Families can learn from this father. Families can make themselves safe places for truth telling and the development of integrity. In families it can be safe to tell the truth about feelings and concerns for our country, our future. In these post-September 11th times, families can hear truth-telling words from differing points of view, not allowing fear to dictate the conversation.
In our time, we hear so much that is not true - information with a “spin” on it, and serious lies. Sometimes it seems that truth and integrity are in danger of being lost to us. Comparing the George Washington story with the stories of modern presidents, one feels discouraged and at a distance from the qualities on which we believe our country is built.
Yet, truth telling and integrity are at the heart of the therapist’s profession. Someone has said that therapy is the experience of speaking the truth in the presence of another. Everyday we are in the process of helping clients find the courage to be truth-tellers with us, and in this process claim their own integrity. We help families handle the truth and the integrity of their members. When we help families learn the skills of George Washington’s father - the results can help build families unafraid of truth telling because of the high value they place on their integrity.
Today, we live in a nation that is as divided as this nation was in George Washington’s time. In Washington’s time, the nation was finally able to unite under the leadership of an admired truth-teller, who was perceived as a man of integrity. Truth telling and integrity can help us find unity now.
As a therapist, I think about families divided, where truth telling and integrity are threatened because someone’s “cherry tree” or other symbol has been lost. I think about how to help families withstand the fear that can paralyze, lead to inertia, and the abandonment of truth telling and integrity and even the ability to recognize truth telling and integrity.
Truth telling and integrity are powerful energies — powerful enough to found and sustain nations — but these energies have adversaries in attractive disguises. There are lots of short-term perks for failures in truth-telling and integrity - and families sometimes take the perks instead of providing the environment for each other where truth-telling and the integrity of each member count for more than short-term perks. Therapy is about listening to the stories of our clients until the stories become experiences of truth telling that build integrity. The process is not so simple as in the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree, but the results can be the same — we can help build a nation.