Following my essay on “dirty little secrets” I received a number of concerned notes from acquaintances concerned about whose secrets were being told. Sadly I don’t think the essay was quite as juicy as some would have liked, or feared it would be – but the rapid fire response got me thinking about the nature of secrets in general. Not just those that are part of common experience but those that are personal. The secrets not just of our common lives but the secrets of our past and the lies we have told to bury those secrets, or just the lies we have told that we have to manage after telling them for so long.
Let me get started by saying this: I don’t lie. That is a big, bold statement and at the very outset you have to decide if I am a nauseatingly truthful person, or if I am such a liar that I lie about lying. Either way – it’s your choice what you want to believe – it won’t change reality, just your perception. Now I am not suggesting that I have never lied, but I am asserting that I do not now and I don’t for a simple reason: it is too hard and I am both lazy and forgetful. I also want to take a little credit for learning a lesson – having lied about myriad things in the past I have come to recognize that it is not a great way to live one’s life. Mostly because it takes a significant amount of energy and memory, but also because I think it is wrong.
We’ll do the moralizing part right now, real quick and just get it out of the way. Lying is wrong. It made it to the top ten of the commandments and regardless of how you feel about the Judeo-Christian commandments they are basically good rules that help protect others from being hurt. Lying is deception and even if you are doing it because you think the lie will make someone happy you are creating a relationship without genuine emotion, based on assumption about others and without basic trust. I don’t care what the lie is, this all still happens. Lying is wrong not because god said it is wrong but because it creates pain, and I believe that in the universal rules intentionally creating pain is wrong. And don’t kid yourself – all lies create pain somewhere – in yourself, in others, in the fundamental relationship, in the impact of the reality/unreality you are spinning, there is pain somewhere.
Now for the practical of why I personally don’t lie, which is probably a much easier reason to get behind than the moral argument: it’s hard work. First of all you have to remember the story and since I can barely remember what I had for breakfast most days remembering a concocted story of bullshit is beyond my abilities. Second, and related to the first reason, you have to keep working the lie potentially for years – it may have to grow with time and that means not only more lying but more to remember – too much to deal with, easier to tell the truth.
Let us digress for a little anecdote: I have dogs, a few of them in fact and I like to take them with me when I go places. One of my dogs does not care to be left in the car and she is pretty smart so when I would take her out with me as soon as I exited the car she would hop into the front seat to watch where I was going and to stay on alert until I came back. One day, to get a better view she happened to put her fore-paws up on the steering wheel and hit the car horn. She didn’t really care about the horn but it got me to turn around, shake my finger and pay attention. I then turned and went on my way. She hopped up again hitting the horn and getting me to return to the car to make her move to a back seat. Now again, she is a pretty smart dog so as soon as I left the car she went back to the front and hit the horn again. This went on for a while until I abandoned my errand and went directly to the walk – human zero, dog one. That night I told my husband this story, he laughed, thought it was funny and clearly thought I was full of hooey. A week later we are out together with our smarty dog in the car when we get out to run an errand, probably the same one I had to abandon days earlier. She immediately runs to the front seat, hits the car horn and my husband, jaw on ground says “wow, I didn’t believe it but she really does do that!” Yep she does – good story made even better by being true. When I tell funny stories my husband believes me – in fact when I tell him anything he believes me, why shouldn’t he. Little lie, big lie doesn’t matter – if lying is what you do where do you draw the line?
A lot of people will ask the question, what’s the big deal about a “little lie,” or a “white lie” – they don’t hurt anyone right? Well my question back is what is the point then? I have already stated my position that all lies hurt on some level – maybe they just hurt your credibility long term – but why lie at all? I know a lot of writers who just like to “embellish” a little to make it a better story – well then call it fiction because that is what it is. And I know a lot of people who like to embellish their history a little – like our nameless friend who tells people he is a FBI agent – why? If you don’t like the life you are living, change your life. Use all that energy you expend on lying to become the person you tell everyone you are.
In ‘dirty little secrets’ I wrote about a kind of lie of omission where we are just not honest with each other about the reality of our lives. I am not suggesting here that we need to do an emotional dump on everyone we meet so that we are always completely open about everything we are experiencing, but by not honestly sharing when we have the opportunity we create another kind of pain for our friends in letting them feel isolated in their experiences. ‘Oh, you can’t afford to go on vacation this summer, neither can we, any suggestions for how to create a fun staycation?’ vs. ‘Bummer – let me tell you all about what we are doing (on a credit card, not sure how to pay it off, really hope the housing market bounces back!).’ Maybe it’s human nature to create these little unrealities, or maybe it is cultural, or competitive or both – and maybe I am a wishful thinking hippy to believe it would be a better world if we stopped behaving this way.
What about some of the other kinds of lies, the kind where we build our life on an alternate existence: where we went to school, what we were like, what we did, etc. You have probably read some of the stories in the paper about the doctor, lawyer, academic who modified their resume and have created an entire career based on lies. Some of these may be “white lies” like went to Harvard rather than Sac State, some may be worse, (would you call that a “black lie?”) ‘went to medical school, but really only took a biology class so sorry I missed that tumor.’ Is the latter worse than the former? I don’t think so: it certainly has a potentially more tangible impact in the short term, but think about the former – a career of 20+ years setting policy or direction, determining the fate of other individuals in your field: at the end of the run when you are found out there is no going back and re-doing the decisions that you made that perhaps you shouldn’t have been permitted to make because your position was based on a fabrication. And maybe you were smart enough, and capable enough and it wasn’t fair that you didn’t have the opportunities in life to take you to Harvard – you were just doing what you had to, to make up for the unfairness life dealt you – this is a pretty good justification. And this is a moral argument: you just took those same opportunities from others, you hurt others like you by demeaning the quality of your real experience rather than being a champion for that path.
Consider also someone like Bernie Madoff – I know we all want to make him Satan incarnate – he ruined lives (maybe – you had to have at least 10 million to invest with him so it’s not like he took the food from your mouth –these are people who had a lot of money and should have been diversified) – but he didn’t start out with that intention, after the first recession the lies just snow-balled – he meant to make the money back, he wanted to make the money back – people believed in him, he couldn’t let them down… and probably also he didn’t want to admit to having made bad investment decisions – lots of reasons to lie, turns out there was a lot of pain in the end and it might be easy to say this was definitely the wrong kind of lie, but is it really that much worse just because it hurt people in the pocket book, is that how we judge right and wrong?
I want to explore another justification for lying that we hear a lot: ‘I don’t want to hurt them.’ Like somehow in order to be honest you have to be mean. I have encountered a number of people who will tell you that they are ‘totally honest all the time’ and that people don’t like them because they tell the truth. These are people who usually proceed to tell you everything they don’t like about you justifying it by saying, ‘I’m just telling the truth.’ But the truth is not the same as opinion, neither is it the same thing as mean. I may not like you, and I may hate the shirt you are wearing but honesty is not synonymous with saying everything in your head and I don’t need to tell you exactly what I think of your shirt. Now there may be a problem if you ask my opinion, and you many not be happy if I tell you exactly what I think but you can be honest and thoughtful and say, ‘It wouldn’t work for me, but I can tell that you really love it.’ I think it is also okay to say, ‘I don’t love it on you.’ If that’s the end of the friendship it may not have been a healthy relationship to begin with.
I had a colleague who justified lying religiously by saying that the interpreters of the bible determined that lying was acceptable to avoid causing others hurt. I think I laughed so loud it was offensive. I pointed out the big rule, ‘thou shalt not lie’ was not qualified but she stuck to the position arguing that if Auntie Foofoo spent all day making soup and then asked how you liked it you should not say ‘this is disgusting and tastes like sewage.’ I agree – you should not say that, it would be mean. But you can say, ‘I really don’t care for this kind of soup, but thank you for working so hard to make it.’ In the latter example you have been totally honest. Maybe Auntie Foofoo isn’t happy because she wanted you to like the soup, but you were truthful and you probably won’t have to eat that soup again.
So what about all of those other little lies (or big lies) or pieces of the story we leave out as we grow and change and meet new people. Given the number of private notes I received in response to ‘dirty little secrets’ my guess is that there are a number of people out there who have not shared the whole picture of who they are and where they have come from with the people currently in their lives. Why not? Do you have so little trust in your partner or in your friends that you think they would judge and reject you if they knew all of who you are? What happened to the idea of learning from one’s mistakes: if you live your life pretending that you never made any what kind of example do you set for your children – what kind of shame do they live with if they err? What they learn is to hide the mistake, pretend it never happened, learn in secret because you can’t be flawed. We can’t learn how to forgive the errors of life if we can’t forgive ourselves our own errors.
I am not perfect, I am not proud of the conduct of my entire life – I am not even proud of the conduct of my life all of the time now, though I think it is better than it used to be. I am deeply sorry for lies that I told not because of damage that they may have caused (I don’t think they did) but because of the fact that I denied myself the opportunity to experience my own life, no matter how unpleasant it may have been at the time. Selfishly I’m probably most sorry for ever having lied as a child because to this day my mother publicly accuses me of being a liar – kind of embarrassing at 36 to be judged on the behavior of your 9 year old self but that may be an essay for another day. Though in truth I am not sorry for having been a kid and what I know now is that they all lie – part of how they develop cognitively and learn how to define the reality from the unreality, they have to practice – and it is our job to teach them why to be truthful, but to forgive them the errors of growing up. I hope to give my children the knowledge that not only is it easier to tell the truth, but that it is right – that second part is the hard one, and until we all start telling the truth, the truth can be pretty scary when we are isolated living it!