Thursday, February 18, 2010


Recently a friend and I were having a discussion about deceit. It's a topic that's hard to miss - sports figures, politicians, television preachers, celebrities of all ilk - you can't turn on the news or look at a website without some new story of someone's juicy, and failed, deception. Unfortunately, our conversation didn't have its genesis in the news. It came from her discovery that her husband had started out their relationship with a lie.

Most of us like to believe that we're pretty honest. We tell the truth - we don't make a practice of lying. Of course, if we do lie it's rare and there's ALWAYS a good reason for it, a way to justify it in our minds. "I don't want to hurt their feelings." "It's just a little white lie." "It's nobody else's business." "This is not a big deal - no one is getting hurt." They're not big lies, and they almost always have an "honorable" purpose - at least that's what we tell ourselves.

I'm relatively certain that lying is a natural human instinct. Which of us doesn't secretly want to appear to be better than we are. We do it to make ourselves look more honorable, more considerate, more kind. We do it to be "diplomatic." We tell the doctor that we work out regularly. We say that we never lie. We assert that we'd be happy to help out. We tell you we love your new haircut.

The harsh reality is that most of the time it's simply a way of avoiding trouble or, at the least, responsibility. We start as children. "How did the glass get broken?" "I don't know." "Who left their bike in the middle of the driveway?" "Not me." We continue as adolescents. "Where were you?" "We were at the library - studying." As adults, we take a 'sick day' when we really aren't sick.

Am I advocating total honesty, all the time? Heck no. Any idiot knows that a lie is in order when you're asked that (stupid, by the way) question - "Do these jeans make my butt look fat?" The truth - "No, the fact that your butt is fat is what makes your butt look fat" - is simply unacceptable. We lie.

So we justify our deceits because we always have a good reason. But deceit lives on a slippery slope and eventually, if we aren't careful, it becomes a little easier to cross the line. Somehow, we lose perspective and our 'good reason' becomes simple self-service. We don't want to own up to our mistake. We're embarrassed about our error. We're not getting what we want so we omit a significant detail or two or, perhaps worse, create a detail that doesn't exist. We're afraid if the truth comes out we'll lose face or we'll lose something or someone that we want. Before we know it, we've moved from dissembling or a convenient 'misrepresentation' into the realm of a flat out lie.

But everyone does it, so what's the harm? Embarrassment if we're found out - the lightest of our consequences. A verbal reprimand from a boss or a maybe a letter in a personnel file. If the lie is big enough, maybe a lost job. A damaged relationship - again, if the lie is big enough, maybe one that is permanently broken. But it seems the bigger harm is what it does to us internally. What it does to our sense of ourselves, our sense of integrity, and maybe, eventually, our ability to tell the truth from fiction.

If we're not careful, we begin to justify our lie and the telling of it because it achieved for us the desired outcome. And if we continue down the path, we begin to actually believe that the lie we told is truth - or close enough to truth that it doesn't matter. And, the additional trouble with the lie is that it becomes the foundation for everything that comes after it - making for a web of lies that appear to have substance but that fall apart when the initial lie is revealed for what it is.

My friend, for example, is now in the position of questioning everything her husband has said to her during their marriage. If one of the first things he said to was a lie (and a whopper of one as it turns out), then she naturally questions if everything that has come after is also a lie. I suspect, of course, that it isn't. After all, unless one is a sociopath, keeping up a constant web of lies simply takes too much energy and is too difficult to sustain. But I understand her concern - and her sense of betrayal. She admits quite freely that had she known the truth, she would never have dated him at all and, it follows then, that she never would have married him. How does one, in such circumstances, reconcile the revealed truth to the initial lie and to the validity of the life choices that have come from it as a result?

I have no answers for my friend. But hearing her story makes me remember the times I have been deceived and the terrible sense of hurt and betrayal that came as the inevitable result. More importantly, it makes me think about the times I am tempted to deceive. Certainly most of the time, as hard or even painful as it might be to tell it, the truth truly is better than a lie. And even when it seems like a lie would be the most expedient choice, the harder path of the truth is really the better choice. In the end, we may end up not getting exactly what we had thought we wanted, but we end up with something better - an intact sense of our own integrity.

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