When rapper Chris Brown beat up his then girlfriend Rhianna, there was an odd reaction from much of Hollywood. As Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew were recently discussing on Carolla’s podcast, Hollywood’s reaction – especially at red carpet events – seemed less than honest and at times downright pathetic. Some were praising Brown for being a “good person” who was going through a difficult time. But only a few stood forward and publicly denounced Chris Brown as a pathetic loser who viciously assaulted his girlfriend… something no one can legitimately justify. The podcast echoed in my mind this week when I was faced with a debtor who was – to put it mildly – outrageously dishonest. So much so that I was forced to look this person in the eye and say “you know, you’re not coming across as an honest but unfortunate person entitled to bankruptcy protection.” I thought I was being polite. Their response left me thinking even more.
I cannot share the details. Instead, let me share this clever allegory that I believe aptly illustrates exactly how things went in my meeting with this debtor.
Picture me as an oncologist. I am not this patient’s first oncologist – and I’m told that things apparently didn’t go well with the first doctor and the patient is already “in treatment” (or had a pending bankruptcy case). I am looking at xrays and lab reports and I am seeing that this patient sitting before me (the debtor) is suffering from a variety of cancers affecting the lung, throat and mouth. There’s nothing in the lab reports that tells me that the patient is a smoker, but the cancers – and what I know about them tells me that either the patient is a smoker, or there are some significant long standing environmental issues that need to be dealt with.
Yet despite the absence of a tobacco use notation on the documents before me, a closer examination of the patient reveals that there are nicotine stains on the fingers, teeth that are far from white, a persistent cough, a raspy voice, a Bic lighter sitting squarely in the front shirt pocket, and an odor that as a former smoker I can attest is stale cigarette smoke strong enough that it’s probably embedded so deep in the patient’s clothing that no softener or drier sheet will make any difference. As a matter of fact, I am very confident that the clothes will smell better only when they are set ablaze.
I ask the patient “how long have you been smoking?”
“I don’t smoke. I have not smoked in over 15 years.”
I then confirm that there are no smokers in the patient’s home, that the patient does not live near a factory district or overlooking a major turnpike, and has never worked in or around coal or asbestos.
“You know,” I said “I cannot help you if you’re not going to be honest with me.”
“What makes you think I am being dishonest?” the patient replied.
I don’t respond. I sit there, staring back with a look on my face that I am pretty sure conveyed what I was thinking: ‘because I was not born yesterday nor did I get my medical degree online.’
“How dare you! I come to a doctor to be healed!” Then the patient’s outrage escalates: “So what if I smoke! Who the hell are you to call me dishonest!? You don’t even know me!”
That last statement was probably the most honest thing that the patient said to me. I don’t know this patient – but as an oncologist, I don’t need to. I only need to ‘fix the cancer’ assuming I can.
The meeting ended with my telling the patient/debtor that there was no way I could help them because they were not being honest with me. And let’s face it – if they are not being honest with me, how can I help them get through a bankruptcy system that commands their honesty.
What I found striking about this meeting is that I was not the first “oncologist” that this patient had seen – but I am fairly certain that I was probably the first one that called the patient out on their lack of honesty and candor. Yet, rather than say “geesh, you got me doc…can you still help me?” I was instead fed righteous indignation from someone who clearly wants to smoke themselves silly well into a ripe old age and expects their well-trained oncologist to draw a road map to show them know how to do it.
Much of consumer bankruptcy case law that has evolved through the years focuses on the “honest but unfortunate debtor.” Without a doubt, a person deep in debt is in an unfortunate position. But not every unfortunate debtor is honest, and for everyone, honesty is more about the choices you make rather than how the law defines the term “honesty.”
Ultimately, it is the choices you make that will determine whether you get the relief our bankruptcy system offers. It’s your choice to be honest, and for those so entitled, the relief you seek will be there. And if you choose to be dishonest, it’s your relief to lose. And probably your house and what remains of your dignity. But then again, if you’re thinking that lying your way through the system will work, what the hell do I know? Right?
- Honesty and Bankruptcy, Part II: Feeling Dishonest
- Honesty and Bankruptcy, Part III: The Reality Check and the Boy Scout
- Charging Illness
- Honesty Goes A Long Way
- When You Discover that You Are a Creditor in a Bankruptcy Case…
Tags: Yep. We're in trouble.