Lying to Ourselves

I live in the Bay Area so the big news in the paper (yes I read the paper) and on the radio (I would assume also TV but not a media source I turn to) is another politician accused of corruption. This involves taking bribes and arms trading. It sounds bad, it looks bad, odds are he’s going to the pokey. A corrupt politician is not news, and while perhaps titillating the crimes he is accused of committing aren’t really worth an essay. What I found interesting is the element that answers the “why” in the story. When you dig down through the layers of excuses you can find what he was really trying to accomplish, what any of us are trying to accomplish when we do things we shouldn’t: changing our circumstance in an attempt to feel better about ourselves. The manner in which we go about doing that is not always effective.

Why do we lie? Because we don’t want to get in trouble, because we don’t want to deal with reality, because we want the lie to be true and maybe telling it will make it so. Why do we steal? Because we want something we can’t otherwise have, because it is exciting and dangerous and takes us out of being ordinary, because we think we deserve it. Why do we cheat? Because we want a result we don’t have, because we want the recognition, because we are afraid that is the only way. We do all of these things because we are trying to fill up an empty space in ourselves that we don’t like, we don’t trust, and we don’t want to acknowledge. Based on the story I’ve heard this particular politician believed that he needed more money in order to achieve his political ambitions. I think at the end of the day he may find that the path he chose was not terribly effective in getting him what he wanted, not in the long run anyway.

When my children were very little, six and three I think, they would fight a lot. The baby took the big girl’s toys, or followed her around like a puppy and she just wanted to be left alone. So there was conflict and playing together nicely was moments not hours. I wearily complained about this to some other moms at the playground, and one woman said triumphantly, “oh my children never fight, I guess it’s just the environment in the home.” I’m pretty sure she was full of hooey but I felt bad nonetheless, because maybe she was right and I was just a terrible wife and mother and had created an environment in which fighting occurred. I don’t think she was trying to make me in particular feel bad, I think that what she was trying to do was make herself feel good, and she lied to make that happen. Her kids fought, I had seen it with my very own eyes, but for whatever reason she needed a different reality and she told that story to make herself feel better. I don’t think the lie she told did anymore for her long-term happiness than the bribes our politician took to get whatever he was after.

Why does any of this matter? I think for two big reasons: one is personal and one is social. When we lie, cheat or steal we do so at the expense of our own reality and the opportunity to actually connect with the truth of who we are and what we want. We treat ourselves like we don’t believe in ourselves and if I don’t believe in me no one else is going to either. Socially we create a swirling vortex of dishonesty that sucks everyone into a cycle of deception and abuse and self-loathing. The excuse for doping in the US cycling team was that you couldn’t win if you didn’t dope – well that’s true only if everyone is doping, if that stops then there is an opportunity to win without doping. If the story at the playground is that none of the children ever fight then we all start to tell that story so we don’t ostracize ourselves from the group and we create an environment where it isn’t safe to be honest and no one gets the support or the resources they really need.

What would happen if instead of taking a bribe to pay off campaign debts a politician started talking about how ridiculously expensive campaigning is? What would happen if at the playground we shared strategies for dealing with grumpy children and didn’t need parenting to be a competition? What would happen if we told the truth about how we felt, what we wanted, and the mistakes we had made? I don’t think we would always be happy but I think a lot of things would be a lot less complicated.

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