Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lies, Part One

Lately I've been thinking about lies. I recently read that the average person lies once every ten minutes. That's extraordinary for a society that values truth and ridicules those who "can't handle the truth." I remember some years ago one of my assignments in an Advanced Composition class involved getting the students to read a series of essays on Truth and Lies, and one thing we considered as a class were "bad lies" versus "good lies." (Immanuel Kant, of course, said no lie was a good lie; lying under any circumstance was unjustifiable.)

Of course we came up with the usual reasons lying could be okay: If the Nazis were banging on my door, asking if the Frank family were hiding in my house, I'd say no, and that lie would be okay. If my Grandma Luck asked me if her peach cobbler was good, I'd say yes even if I hated it; that's okay. And some lies of omission are all right: If I were a paramedic, say, and I was treating a little boy whose parents had died in a car wreck, and if he asked me if where his mom and dad were, I'd say "They're up in the front seat," avoiding telling him they're dead.

We decided these lies were all okay because the motive behind them was a good one. Lying might save the Frank family. Lying would save hurting Grandma's feelings. Lying by omission would save the little boy from getting upset, which could harm his already fragile state, having been just injured in a car wreck.


What's been troubling me, though, is that even the good lies demand that we make a judgment regarding somebody else without consulting them. Now the Franks, I'm sure, would support my lie, because I've already conspired in a lie with them by hiding them from the Nazis in the first place. But what about Grandma? By saving her hurt feelings, what if she goes on to make peach cobbler the same way henceforth much to everyone's chagrin? Would she not have preferred to know her new cobbler recipe was a bust?

And what about the little boy? At some point he's going to realize an adult lied to him about his parents. What might that do to his ability to trust adults, and how might that wreck his own sense of security?

You can't know unless you really know. And there's the rub. Most every time, we don't really know. And isn't it presumptuous to assume we know what somebody else wants? I do know this: whenever somebody lies to me (to save my feelings or to make a decision for me), I get a little pissed. I would really rather someone just tell me how it is. I don't want to walk around with a booger hanging off my nose or half a boob popping out of my shirt.

But if I feel this way for me, then that means I have to feel this way for you. Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you. Right?

Does this mean I have to go around and tell people if their clothes clash, if their nose is too big, if they're so dumb a worm could probably crawl in one ear and come out the other, encountering no resistance? Wouldn't that make me a big asshole?

Well, there's no problem for me unless I'm asked. Thank God, most of the time people don't even ask. But yeah, if you ask, I guess I'm going to have to blast you (as gently as I can) with the truth. Because I really don't want to decide for you whether or not you ought to know something.


But...what if somebody asks me, "Joyce, is my wife having an affair?"

Arrrgh! You see how I can talk myself in circles all day long.

Okay. I suppose my inclination would be to stay out of it; their relationship is not my business. And maybe that's the answer. "I think that's something that you should talk to your wife about."

But doesn't an answer like that already answer their question?

So now you know why I've been pondering this issue lately. It's hard to find an answer without being able to think of some exception. Maybe that's why Kant threw it all into the breeze and just settled on, "Never lie." I'm not sure I can accept that, yet lately I've been trying to practice rigorous honesty (it's a part of recovery)--but, dammit, that's a taller order than it seems. It's much, much harder than we think.

That's all I've got. Open to other ruminations. I'm sure I'll post on this topic again.

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