Truth, Lies and Real Life
Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer, and poet (1803-1882)
Apart from a few notable twists of truth in my childhood, to avoid punishment (deserved) for my misdeeds (my lies never succeeded in fooling my parents), I have always been a great supporter of telling the truth.
That has had me facing trouble when it was revealed (some said I should have kept quiet). However, trouble inevitably follows lies as a bad smell follows a skunk. Telling the truth allowed me to work my way through unpleasant consequences, where necessary, to find clear sailing beyond. The consequences were of shorter duration, requiring less subterfuge, when I was able to face them and work through them.
That sometimes had its own downside. People I worked with, or for, found themselves having to cope with someone who told everything “as it is.” I avoided exaggeration and meanness, but my truth made them uncomfortable. The reason is that my truth often brought to light their own misdeeds or avoidance of fulfilling their own responsibilities.
Sometimes that meant that workmates avoided me for some period of time. Sometimes it caused me to have to look for a new job. They covered their failures and inadequacies and expected me to do the same with my own. To them, pretending was preferable to bringing the cold hard truth to light and having to face others who were upset by it.
It avoided forcing them to change.
We have this nebulous term “white lies.” One dictionary I consulted described the meaning of this term as “an unimportant lie (especially one told to be tactful or polite).” I question the value of the “unimportant lie.”
A standard joke of comedians tells of the husband who, when asked by his wife if the dress she has just put on is too tight or looks good and will make her look fine at an event they are about to attend, replies (when he fears she might burst a seam) “Of course dear, you look great, as always.” This, we are told, is an acceptable white lie.
Let’s lay this one out bare. The woman knows the dress is too tight or she would not have asked her husband for an opinion. The husband knows the dress is too tight but doesn’t want to make his wife feel bad. Problem solved, for the moment. Then the couple attends the event where every women who sees the wife can see she obviously is wearing a dress that is too tight–or simply that she has gained weight she doesn’t want to admit to.
That situation, we are asked to ignore, to claim that no one at the event will notice the too-tight dress. I submit that every woman at the evident would notice, and many men as well. Moreover, the penalty she will suffer for her social faux pas will be much greater than if she had simply faced the truth (or been told the truth by her husband) and changed to another garment before leaving home.
No one at an event wants to tell a woman that her cosmetics are smeared, as that might embarrass her. So she moves about advertising her messy face to everyone until she later sees herself in a mirror in the ladies’ room. Again, the embarrassment she feels when she realizes that so many others have seen her with messy makeup is far greater than what she would feel if someone had told her sooner.
By the same token, a man might emerge from a public washroom/restroom with his shirt tucked inside his boxers at the back and the waistband of the boxers advertised to the world until the next time he visits the washroom. Is a feeling of great shame in private any less significant than a slight embarrassment when something is revealed in public?
White lies and slight perversions of the truth to help someone avoid embarrassment “to be tactful or polite” always come out. The consequences are always worse later than they would have been at the time.
A white lie is simply a way to delay a worse consequence.
What is the attraction of a lie? Often a lie will produce exactly the results in a person that the person wants to have.
Lies are beautiful, in the short term.
An example that keeps thumping in my brain is the concept of the character of God. Every religion has a God (some, like Buddhism, are technically philosophies of life). Every religion admits that we have no way of knowing anything about God. Yet there are people in every religion who will happily tell you all manner of warm and comforting things they believe about God. Where did these things originate? In lies. Well meaning lies, I admit. Tell them what they want to hear.
Oddly, most religions grant a male gender to their God, yet the characteristics given by those with ready answers about their God almost inevitably fit better someone of female gender, a mother. Why? Those who do not feel personally secure want to feel that their God cares for them the way a mother would.
For some, it works. For a while.
Getting back to our original quotation by Emerson, I question just how beautiful most people find truth. Truth in nature, for sure. As the saying goes, truth is beauty and beauty truth. Even the truth of a natural disaster, when viewed after the fact and from a distance, can be seen as beautiful, in a way.
If we judged the truth of Emerson’s statement about truth and lies based on our own culture, we would have to say that we immerse ourselves in lies. Almost nothing we see on television or on the stage is true, the exception being documentaries (though some of them have political or social agendas with carefully edited “facts”). Virtually everything in every commercial or print advertising is a perversion of the truth (massaging truth to make it look better, making us want what we mostly don’t need).
We live in houses that convey a certain social status we may not have in reality, wear clothes that tell strangers we are something we may not be, drive cars or trucks to make others believe we can actually afford them.
Put simply, lies are more attractive than the truth. There are those among us who want to believe our lies so much that they actually come to believe them. Where is the truth? We expect others, even strangers, to “have faith” that the message we are trying to convey is the truth.
The hidden request is to “trust me.”
No matter how many times we say a lie, it is still a lie. But we can believe the lie. That’s life. But is it really better than the truth?
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want their children to be able to cope, without fear and lies, with the world they will one day enter as adults.
Learn more at http://billallin.com