Fake news. Alternative facts. Calling lies truth and truth lies. “Gas-lighting,” that tool that some use to diminish and control others (found especially in abusive marriages) is a particularly pernicious form of lying. How are we ever to sort out what to believe?
Simply put, the trouble with lying is that it’s destructive on so many levels. At its heart, lying disrespects the person to whom you’re telling it. It hides and misrepresents, leaving the other unsettled, on uneven ground. It destroys trust when discovered, undermining the basic social contract on which all genuine relationships are built. It kills genuine community, especially when used as a means to grab and hold onto power over us, as it so often is today.
Some people dismiss lying as not a very big problem because “everybody does it.” Except that not everybody does; that’s a lie. Some people genuinely value giving and receiving the truth and hate being lied to. I’m one of them.
When I was a little girl my mother taught me never to lie and I took the lesson deeply to heart. In our house, telling the truth was a strong value strongly communicated. It played a very large part in our moral development, shaping my sense of what’s right and wrong. I can’t honestly tell you that I have never told a lie, but I can tell you that I’ve never done so without a feeling of remorse and guilt. To this day I have trouble telling even the “little white lies” that are considered part of ordinary discourse. (If you don’t want me to tell you what I really think of your new suit, don’t ask me, please.)
So one day I was shocked and dismayed when I caught my dad telling a lie. We were in the car, Dad driving, Mother sitting beside him, me in the back seat looking out the window. We were chatting. He was talking about something, I don’t recall what, nor do I remember what the lie was that shocked me. I remember vividly feeling shocked and that he took it lightly, even laughed about it when I confronted him about it. Instead of disputing or explaining it away, he admitted it! It was shocking to my youthful sensibilities. He didn’t think it was a big deal. But here I am, years later, having never forgotten it.
Looking back, I realize that moment was part of a break in our relationship that never fully mended. I knew then that I couldn’t trust what he said to me. He could lie, and did lie, not because it was necessary but because it was convenient for him, and it amused him. It probably was what we call “a little white lie,” but it was shattering to me. (Okay, maybe I was an obnoxiously self-righteous little girl.) Nevertheless I never completely trusted what he told me after that; there was always some measure of doubt and skepticism. I grew up trusting my mother; not so much my dad.
Let’s acknowledge that sometimes, when the matter at hand is especially important to us, it’s harder to tell the truth than to tell the convenient lie. It takes courage and commitment to be a truth-teller, not least because we may be punished for it. Not everyone wants to hear the truth. But large or small, lies can weave a web that traps us, divides us, and stains us with dishonor.
When so much can be lost, we need to demand that we ourselves and the people who hope to be in relationship with us tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Our life together depends on it.
Here are some thoughts on “truth:”
“Hard are the ways of truth, and rough to walk.” — Milton.
“You never find yourself until you face the truth.” — Pearl Bailey.
“The great thing is to get the true picture, whatever it is. “ — Winston Churchill, during World War II.
“Truth is the road map for negotiating the difficult challenges of life. Without it we get lost and we develop emotional problems that tell us we’re lost. We often settle for half-truths or no truth at all because they are usually easier. But truth is the only road to emotional health. There is no other path. “ — Psychologist Chris Thurman