Tag Archives: lying

The high cost of lying

There are times when lies are the wisest and most compassionate choices. If Hitler is at the door and Anne Frank is in the attic, lying is the honourable choice. However, the human mind is a delicate thing and there are consequences to constantly distorting your relationship with reality.

It is more normal to talk about this in terms of the victims – people who have been gaslit, brainwashed, mislead and otherwise compromised by untruth. These kinds of experiences can leave a person not knowing who or what to trust, including no longer being confident in their own judgement. Gaslighting is designed to damage a person in ways that make them easier to control.

But what happens to the person doing the gaslighting? What happens to the person who has to keep asserting that x is really y and that z never happened? It doesn’t really spare them from having to acknowledge what they did or what really happened, at least not inside their own minds. It doesn’t liberate them from consequences, but it does tie them to an ongoing process of not being able to deal with anything. What happens to a person when they spend their time pretending that fake things are true, and/or that true things are fake?

What happens to the Emperor when people notice that he’s naked and that his story is a lie? 

UK politics is a mess at the moment. We’re watching people who have spent years lying, trying to explain how they’re going to fix the problems they helped cause, while not admitting they helped cause the problems. Not that any of them are proposing any actual solutions. The sounds coming out of the government are peculiar and nonsensical. I find myself wondering what it must be like to have spent the last few years lying about how great Brexit is for everyone, how great a job your party is doing of handling the pandemic, and what a fine, upstanding chap your leader is. I would think that could take a toll on anyone’s mental health, and I cannot help but wonder if we’re seeing the consequences.

Lying about Love

Of all the human emotions, love is the one we are most dishonest about. We lie and say we feel it when we don’t, for all kinds of reasons, including to avoid causing pain, to get laid and to get other advantages. We say we don’t feel it when we do, to avoid awkwardness and complication, to protect ourselves and others. We’re often not even honest with ourselves about our own feelings, because it is frequently easier not to even go there.

Love is a good thing. Perhaps the best thing there is in this life. It brings joy, wonder, profound connections, and it can get you laid, and that can be glorious. Love begets children and enables enduring connections between people – not always sexual. It underpins co-operation and allows us to have a positive experience of our lives, cultures, landscapes, and other life forms. Without love, being human would be a rather cold and sorry business, I think.

So let’s talk about cake. Most of us like cake – if we can find sorts that suit our needs and appeal to our senses. Cake is one of life’s good things, it brings sweetness and comfort. Talking about cake is also easier than talking about love.

Would we say we wanted cake when really we didn’t? Would we worry that if we say no to cake today, no one will ever offer us cake again? Is this the only cake we are ever going to get? Is no better cake imaginable? Must we make do with a cake that has the wrong jam in it, and lie about liking the jam? If we want some cake, do we feel ashamed to admit this? Do we worry that people will be alarmed or affronted if we tell them how much we like their cake?

But of course cake is not as vulnerable and personal as love… it only connects to our style and buying power, to our body shape and body image. If we make them, they are full of effort and a desire to win approval and recognition. Cake is loaded with deeply personal things, but only a minority of us have eating disorders. Most of us know how to handle cake far better than we know how to handle love.

I learned a long time ago to mostly avoid mentioning how deeply I care about the people around me. I form powerful, enduring emotional attachments, I put heart and soul into anything that is more than a passing acquaintance and I’ve watched people step back if I so much as imply that there is a serious feeling on my part. Too much, too intense, too willing to give even… I’ve had plenty of conversations along the way where I’ve been asked to tone down, step back, or just plain go away. I find it difficult because I know this is the most and best I have to give, and learning how not to even put that on the table where anyone can see it most of the time, has been hard.

It takes a lot, these days, for me to chance telling someone that I love them, outside of already established connections. I have to trust that person not to hear demand or proposition in my words, or to be alarmed and threatened by it. There are few things more demoralising than baring you soul, and have that act of exposure cause someone you really cared about to push you away. Love is more exposed than cake. I wonder sometimes what life would be like in a culture where emotional openness and generosity were encouraged rather than frowned on. Where we supported each other in caring rather than hiding our hearts defensively. I rather feel it would be a better and happier way to live. Whether you can get there from here remains to be seen.

So, anyone for cake?

Sweet little lies

My son has a tremendous interest in ethical questions. He’s particularly fascinated by the ethics of lying, such that this has been a significant topic of conversation lately. Now, the simple answer here is that lying is unethical. But of course there’s the line ‘If Hitler is at the front door and Anne Frank in the attic’. There are times when the only honourable thing to do is to lie. There are many people who lived and escaped persecution only because someone hid them and lied for them. Everyone who helped a Jewish person flee the Nazis. Any movement that resists oppression and tyranny depends on subterfuge to some degree. The underground railroad. When the state itself becomes evil, following the law is not the most honourable choice.

Most of us will not find ourselves in a Hitler/Anne Frank scenario. I hope. But every day presents us with opportunities to be more or less honest. Lies by omission are common. The things we let slide, don’t mention. The little injustices we allow to pass unchallenged. The little mistakes we cover up. Most of the time, these don’t make a lot of odds in the grand scheme of things, but when they do, situations can suddenly run out of control and either you have to fess up, or their follows a process of having to tell more lies to hide the first one. Not a good place to be, not an honourable solution, and frequently, not something that allows for a fix. The person who can admit to a mistake has the space to learn, repair, improve. The person who denies ballsing things up cannot redeem themselves, and cannot learn. Appearing to be right, at the expense of actually being right, will cost you dearly in the long run, more often than not.

Then there are the lies we tell to spare someone’s feelings. The theory being that a lie to avoid pain is kinder. That is true sometimes, but at others, it sets people up for a fall. The person whose failings are not pointed out to them can have a seriously inflated self opinion, and sooner or later will run into a bit of reality, and find they aren’t the best novelist who ever lived, after all. I gather current TV shows frequently make ‘entertainment’ by laughing at people who think they’re far better than they really are. The kinder thing to do would have been to point it out sooner. Thinking you are something, and finding you are not, can be far more traumatic than dealing with the truth early on. And again, there’s scope to change. If someone points out where you are failing, you can learn, improve, become what you want to be. The person who wrongly believes they know it already is being denied all kinds of opportunities to really achieve.

There are the lies of convenience. Most people, when they ask how you are, want a short, reassuring answer. It can be tempting to give that. I spent years lying to everyone around me, by saying  ‘a bit tired’ ‘just a bit under the weather’ when I visibly wasn’t ok, rather than saying what was going on. I did it to spare the people around me, and I did it to protect the person who was depriving me of sleep, undermining my self-esteem and abusing my body. Crazy. But like a lot of women in my situation, I didn’t want to face up to the implications of what was happening to me. Easier to blame myself, than the father of my child. Had I spoken the truth, someone could have pointed out to me that things were not ok. I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone thinking ill of my ex back then. And I also wondered if people would just agree with him, that it was my fault for being too demanding, too emotional, too… whatever it was that week.

When I started being honest about what had happened, I found warmth and support. I found versions of me that weren’t deemed useless, ridiculous, over reacting and unreasonable. I was told that the things I felt, wanted, needed, were the least a human should have. I wish I had dared to trust sooner.

One of the things I learned from this, is that if you consider yourself to be an honourable person and do not feel safe in being honest, it is time to question the situation you are in. It may not be Hitler at the door, but something external is quite probably awry. If you have a mindset that leans towards taking on responsibility, then it can be easy to internalise blame, to carry things that are not yours, and so forth. When honesty feels dangerous, there is serious work to do, somewhere.

The decision to lie should never been taken lightly. If it’s to avoid inconvenience, or for some other short term gain, it’s worth weighing up what the bigger picture looks like and what the ultimate cost might be. Difficult truth can be handled with tact and care. Mistakes need to be owned. And if it’s not safe to be honest, start thinking about an exit strategy.

For myself, I’d rather tell the truth as far as is humanly possible, come what may. But I do not currently have an attic, much less any Jewish girls depending on me for their lives. In that scenario, you can bet I’d be lying my ass off.