January 10th, 2011

Bratwurst, Rose

Lessons in Lying

I’ve covered some of this material in a prior post, but I think it’s time to go over it again from a slightly different perspective.

I happen to believe that we all lie. This is hardly an original notion, yet I’ve known one or two people who have steadfastly maintained that they do not lie. Furthermore, they believe that honesty is always the best policy; that lying is always the bad choice. For those people, I have a word; a word I’ve never before used in this journal:


More than once, I’ve been in interpersonal situations where answering questions with any substantial amount of honesty would have constituted cruel insensitivity on my part. The examples I’m thinking of are kind of complex and would take some time to relate in print for those of you who don’t know the parties involved. Still, I trust that most of you can think of comparable examples from your own lives; examples that I hope you feel no pangs of guilt over.

[Oh, and then you get these precious sorts who try to have it both ways. They’ll say something like, “Well, you don’t have to LIE exactly; you can just leave out that part, or say something vague to let them draw a different conclusion.” Please! Let’s be grownups here. You can call it a lie, or you can play word games and say it’s just deception, not an actual lie. In my humble opinion, that line of thought is nothing more than a lie you’re telling to yourself! It might be a successful plea in a court of law, but there is no difference between the two approaches with regard to intent or (dare I say) morality. The essential goal is no different: You wish to plant incorrect information in the mind of the person you’re talking to. So don’t wimp out. Own your lie, even if only in the secret corners of your own mind.]

But today, I’d like to broaden the discussion to other aspects of lying. First, I want to turn back the clock to an important early lesson in lying. The lesson came from the Bad Kid Down the Street (BKDS).

BKDS was a pale, scrawny polecat of a kid. While there were few kids in the neighborhood that he could have actually beaten in a fair fight, he rarely got into such scrapes, since his particular specialty seemed to be inflicting pain and/or damage and quickly running away. One day, I saw him pick up a stone and whip it at an unsuspecting kid who was across the street and looking the other way. The stone found its target and inflicted obvious pain. When the target kid turned and shouted, BKDS loudly proclaimed his innocence. “I didn’t do it!” he screamed repeatedly.

What struck me immediately was the sincerity of his denial. If I hadn’t actually seen him throw the stone, I would’ve had to allow for the possibility that he was being wrongfully accused, in spite of his reputation as a Bad Kid.

On one level, seeing him willing to make such a forceful, complete denial only made me hate him more. But on another level, I came to see a collection of enlightening ideas. Among them:

1) If you proclaim something loudly and with the ring of absolute sincerity, some people will believe you, even if your statements are morally or intellectually bereft. This has, of course, become one of the guiding principles of modern political commentary.
2) If you back off from total commitment to a lie, you quickly invite doubt and your own undoing. Which leads right into…
3) Any lie worth telling is worth getting away with.

Number 3 is the key to the whole thing. I speak as someone with a great regard for truth, as someone who searches for truth and tries to share it with others. Any lie, therefore, is something to be carefully considered (even if very quickly in certain situations).

So if you’re going to lie, it ought to be a lie worth telling; a lie whose existence accomplishes a necessary and worthy goal (note that you are thus required to define the term “worthy” for yourself). That being established, you ought to construct it and spring it so that you get away with it. Being caught at a lie is a double whammy: first, the object of the lie has failed, probably laying bare the truth you wished to conceal or avoid. Second, you have permitted yourself to be openly labeled as a liar, which is probably going to hurt you a lot more than it will help you going forward.

Look at it from the other end now: If the object of the lie is unworthy; or if you can’t manage the situation well enough to get away with it, DON’T TELL THE LIE! I cannot stress this enough.

And remember this: habitual lying has a way of complicating one’s life. It forces you to remember what you’ve said to whom. It forces you to live in multiple realities simultaneously – the reality of the objective truth of the matter, and the reality as you’ve portrayed it to various people. If you’re going to do that to yourself and your friends, then that lie had better be worth it.

My friend Jane (not her real name) provided a great lesson about that a few years back. Jane had three boyfriends at the same time, all of whom she was sleeping with (no, not at the same moment). She was completely open about this, and all three boyfriends knew of each other’s presence in Jane’s life. This provided an interesting contrast between her approach and that of one of her three BFs (I’ll call him Biff). Biff was also intimately dating three people, and he was doing his darnedest to keep them from finding out about each other. As far as we could tell, Jane was the only one of the three who knew that the other two women existed. It was frankly comical watching the mental contortions Biff was going through, and all the energy he was expending, to sustain this collection of lies and alternate realities.

We could, of course, have a long conversation about why Jane would date such a man, as well as myriad theories on Jane and Biff’s respective self-images, values, and priorities. But that would be fodder for another post entirely. For our present discussion, the point is simply that Jane was eschewing lies that would only complicate her life, while Biff was making his life maddeningly complicated. In a way, Jane provided us with a beautiful example of the value of telling the truth: She never had to worry about what she’d said to whom about her love life, because she’d tell just about everything to just about anyone. It should be noted that none of these various pairings ended up lasting more than a few months (yeah, big surprise there). Jane and Biff remain friends, but in an unambiguously non-romantic manner.

To sum up, it would be wrong to characterize me as Pro-Lying based on the present discussion. No, no, I’m decidedly Pro-Truth. But, to paraphrase William Saroyan, when the time comes in the time of your life to lie, do it for a worthy purpose and do it well. Or just tell the friggin’ truth.
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