Some years back I read in a spiritual book that if one took care never to tell lies one could so unite oneself with truth that one’s words could come to create reality as well as describe it. The notion so appealed to me that I resolved to become a scrupulous truth-teller.
A few years later in a quarrel, my lover told me I was the biggest liar she had ever known. I was stung — I had been working so hard to be a completely truthful person and here was the one who knew me best telling me she perceived me as a grand liar. When I pressed, she responded, “Your whole life is a lie!”
I pondered this. In my quest to be all-truthful I had successfully eliminated the little lies from my life, but the quest itself had led me into a big lie — defining myself as a unit set apart from the oppositions and struggles of the living world, building myself into a small construction of petty purity, Jack Horner proud with plum.
I still avoid telling little lies; it’s a harmless habit, simple-minded and of little concern. But I still catch myself in the big lie in ever new and changing ways.
I’ve never been good at lies of commission. I must have been well-trained as a small child, because any overt lies I tell are followed by so much guilt and self-recrimination that any benefit the lie may have brought me is buried.
For instance, not long ago I attended a weekend workshop on self-esteem development. Now, I knew this was a reasonable thing for me to do, but I didn’t want to advertise that I was doing it. So when a co-worker with whom I was developing a tentative friendship, a woman whose orientation was more toward the artistic and new wave than personal growth, asked me about my weekend, I replied, “Great, I spent it with friends in Fitchburg.”
This was one of those little lies called “stretching the truth.” After all, the workshop participants had all felt like the best of friends by the time the weekend was over. But when I got back to my desk the tirade began.
“Why didn’t you tell the truth, you coward? She needs self-esteem herself. You may have blown an irrevocable opportunity to influence her. Hearing about that workshop may be just what she needed right now.”
It’s just not worth it. No, the lies I have always specialized in, the ones that seem to escape the heavy hand of censure, are those of omission. Often it’s just easier to let a remark go by than to stir up dissension and risk hard feelings by challenging it.
I’ve particularly noticed this tendency in a friendship, which tends to blow warm and cool, with a very assertive woman writer. One day, for instance, we were discussing magazines and I mentioned THE SUN.
“One thing that bothers me about THE SUN . . . ,” I began.
“Pseudo-spirituality?” she interrupted.
“No,” I went on, “it’s the philosophy on advertising,” and the conversation continued. Later the one-sided dialogue circled in my head. “What the hell do you mean, ‘pseudo-spirituality’? If the spirituality in THE SUN isn’t genuine I don’t know what is. You’re like a high school dropout calling Tolstoy pseudo-intellectual.”
But the moment had passed, and I did not revive it. And as time passes I realize it’s moments like this that have kept our friendship from ever developing. If I challenged her at these times, we might end up parting ways altogether or we might develop a stimulating friendship that would lead to growth on both sides. Either way, I think, would be more honest and satisfying than the lukewarm interaction we have now.
As I finished writing this piece, my husband wandered in, and I showed him what I had written.
“So, are you going to show this to your friend?” he asked. And after giving the matter a little thought, I knew that I would not.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
I don’t like little lies. When someone pays me a compliment that I recognize as false, it puts me in an awkward position. If I accept the compliment, I feel foolish. If I don’t accept it, I feel rude.
White lies disguise painful truths. But this can often be done by telling the truth as well. For instance, I have a cousin who is very boastful. When a friend of mine met her, my friend said of her later, “She’s probably very good at her job (sales) because she’s so enthusiastic.”
I think it’s wonderful to be able to look at the bright rather than the dismal; I wish I had more of that quality. Unfortunately, I have such a compulsion to tell the whole truth that I would probably have spoiled the effect by adding, “But she sure does brag a lot, you know what I mean?”
I suppose that today I think of little lies as not telling the whole truth. I might as well say I am kind of pregnant, or sort of Christian. Sounds a bit noncommittal.
When I was in the third grade, my friend Jim and I referred to these as white lies. It was OK to tell a lie, as long as it was just a white lie. This became a license to share outrageous stories at show-and-tell. My teacher had to take me aside and straighten me out on the truth. There were no white lies.
I was crushed. I said that next she would tell me there was no Santa Claus. She did, and I went from crushed to devastated.
I shared my disappointment with Jim. He didn’t believe me and said I was lying; not white lying but real lying.
I have a suspicion that the only little lies are told by the Lilliputians.
When my consciousness is engrossed in small things and I am not exhibiting the greater truth about myself, there is deception. When my wholeness is overshadowed by the limited things I identify with, that is me deceiving myself.
I am not just those relative things pertaining to my “small” self. I am my body, my race, my sex, and I am more: the I AM “Self” that is beyond time, space, and physical existence; the large Self, unbound, absolute.
When I don’t live my ultimate truth, I’m hiding, covering something; I’m living a little lie.
Lady Lee Gardner
Los Angeles, California
Like everyone else I’m working my way through the phonies. Last time I was at the beauty parlor, I gazed in the mirror as the woman jerked at my hair and a small, hopeless voice commented inside, “It’s too late.” I can no longer pretend a new hairstyle will make great things happen.
Fairy tale dreams of romance turned out to be lies. My fantasies were wonderful, but the reality mainly horrified me. Now, once again, I’m in love. The feeling comes in spells, like the flu. Sometimes it really hits me hard but then it goes away and leaves me in peace, until the next unpredictable attack. The young man only suspects. He likes me, and is a little in lust with me, but that’s all. It’s so much better than nothing. (Years ago I’d have sworn I needed to possess him body and soul, eternally; now I know that’s a lie.) My unconscious initially informed me of suppressed passion in a spectacular dream — later, when I faced the fact that he, like the others, will never really love me, I screamed, moaned, cried, and raged before the violent storm passed over. Soon I’ll realize he isn’t all that earth-shaking. Is this “maturity” then — living half in, half out of illusion?
I blame everything and everybody — school, church, capitalism, men, the flag, marriage and the family, the constant threat of death in general and a nuclear holocaust in particular, Jesse Helms, even God — for my lack of spiritual and material progress, instead of blaming myself and my weaknesses, laziness, and fears. My wild heart. I can’t expect anyone to tend enthusiastically to my affairs for me or feel as interested in my hopes and hangups. To expect anyone to is a foible, and great folly. Another lie.
Durham, North Carolina
It would make sense if I told little lies to make things easier on myself. But I wonder if I tell them instead to keep me from getting what I want. And though I rationalize I’m being heroic, the truth may be that I seek to remain always the martyr.
When my nearly deaf eighty-eight-year-old neighbor asks if she plays the television too loud, I smile and say no, though my precious Sunday naps are often jarringly ended by the wall-shaking din of the football games she so adores.
When the ballet school where I play the piano asks if I can substitute for some other pianist who cancels for a more glamorous gig, I usually agree, though a combination of professional jealousy and the thought of one more class of noisy junior ballerinas makes my skin crawl.
When my mother calls and asks how things are holding up financially, I think of that lonely, dusty can of black-eyed peas in my cabinet and tell her I’m flying high, though payday is days or weeks away, and I took all of my pennies to the bank yesterday.
When the man I have been dating for months looks at me intently and asks what I’m thinking, I say I don’t know, though what I’m thinking is probably exactly what he wants and needs to hear.
I don’t know why I do it. And oh, how I wish sometimes they could make me tell the truth.
I remember being home, in bed, with a cold, when I was about eleven years old, when my mother walked into my room holding a sanitary napkin erect in her hands. “Do you know what this is?” she asked. I died. Of course I knew. I’d been anxiously awaiting that first downpour.
“No,” I said.
After years of wondering whether this day would ever come (and dreading that it might), I lay there watching my mother squirm her way through the birds and bees. Somewhere in that eleven-year-old body of mine was empathy for what she was going through. I’ve never uttered a word about this to Mom, and I’ve never realized until this moment what holding on to this little lie has cost me in my relationship with her. I see now that I’ve marred, no matter how minutely, a link between us as women. Nothing to do now but clear it.
New York, New York
Our sons, twenty-four and twenty-one, are breaking away from us. I tell them I admire their independence and strength. After all, they are young men now. “Fly away, little birds,” I tell them. “The world is yours. Take to the sky.”
But I lie.
I want to hang on with everything I can muster. I want my little boys back. I want to have warm cookies and cold milk ready for them when they bound through the kitchen door after school. I want to sit at the table with them and have them tell me what hurts so that my wise words and nurturing hugs can heal them.
I want to cheer Brad again when he leaps into the air and that baseball plops right into his glove. I want to delight again while Chuck, with grimy little-boy hands, in complete control of the keyboard, creates magic. I want us to go apple picking again, to watch the sunrise on Lake Michigan, and to revel in the first snowfall of Winter.
So I lie. I don’t want them to grow up. I want to hold them and never let them go.
Park Forest, Illinois
First there are the lies I tell when I get to work, always a little late, lies to mask the fact that I don’t quite want to be there. “Couldn’t find the keys at the last minute.” “Battery was dead, had to get a jump start.” “My mother called long distance from Oregon just as I was leaving.” Lies to mask the hug I did not want to end, the chapter I began just before I should have left, the Mozart “Kyrie eleison” that I wanted to engrave into my soul before midnight. For at midnight, as it does for Cinderella, everything changes for me. I am due on the Crisis Hotline, efficient and cool, to answer calls throughout the night from the chronically lonely people of the darkness: Vince, who cannot sleep; Gina, who contemplates dying nightly as a way to justify contact; Martha, who cuts her arms with razor blades on the tracks at 2 a.m. and then calls to ask to be stopped; Betty, who wakes from nightmares of a revolving pit and being chased by her killer son; Joe, who worries about his girlfriend’s wordless depression because his own fears are too large and terrible to contemplate; Ruthy, who lurches down the hall from her bed like a tipsy ship, seventy-six and cancer-ridden, partially deaf and mostly blind, she who wants a cigarette, brown and long, to tide her through the sleepless hours. . . .
This is how I spend my nights and I lie to each person also: “Don’t you think life is good, beautiful, that it’s what we make of it?” to Vince, who lives alone in an almost bare room, is agoraphobic and has no friends. “Do the voices ever say good things?” to Peter, who hears people attacking him from the inside. “I like you, I know you can stop,” to she who cuts herself as rhythmically as the moon to release her hate, and to Chuck, “If you keep talking of guns and cyanide I will hang up,” having no intention of hanging up. And “I’ve got a call on another line, can you hold a minute?” while I think, what do I say to Debby, pounding her battered hands on one more brick wall, she who has lost her kids to the state, four in a row at birth, and now Jeremy too has been taken.
But these are not the only lies I tell. I tell lies to my friends, too: “I wasn’t home,” (I was home in bed, staring at the ceiling, waiting to feel better); “I tried to get you all night long,” (I wanted to call, but dreaded dialing and getting a) a response or b) no response); “I’m doing fine, really, just fine,” (because I don’t think you [or I] can handle how I really am).
The strangest lies are the ones I tell myself, because I’m not sure if they’re true or false. Lies like, “I can’t do it, I just don’t have the energy.” “Who, me?” “I need something, someone to feel complete.” “You have no real discipline.” “You’re OK, just fake it.” “Love yourself? That’s a laugh!” “Stupid little fool.” All these have a ring of truth, yet a hollow ring. Maybe the truth is different, bigger, stronger, wilder than I imagined. Maybe I’m not a total jerk. Despite my clumsiness, something deeper lies underneath: that Vince receives a book in the mail from me and, voice cracking, manages to thank me; that Martha casts a long, slow, mischievous glance at me in the morning as I struggle out the door; that Debby’s rage infuses my own with a will to live; that Gina’s irritable slamming feels healing somehow; that Peter’s voices echo my own; that Chuck comforts me gently when I’m lonely at night. We’re all in it together, we’re all connected, no matter what it says in the office about policies, protocols, boundaries and limits. If Bo’s not out of the hospital tomorrow, I’ll need to see if someone’s feeding her cat, Bandit. And the books for Jake and Kenny in the Correctional, must mail them by Thursday so they’ll be there in time for their birthdays. . . .