Children lie. Mostly to cover up wrongdoing and avoid consequence. But they can also tell tall tales, elaborate stories of adventure, imaginary friends or monsters in the closet. This is all pretty normal and according to experts, tends to subside when kids get to grade school and their peers become more discerning. It seems we figure out rather quickly that getting caught telling a fib is rarely worth the thrill of our lie being believed. Plus, hopefully, most parents are instilling values in their children such as character and the importance of being honest.
Even so, elaborating details, exaggerating our experiences or flat-out bullshitting can be a constant temptation for many, be it on a resume, in conversation or in online dating profiles. I recall making small talk with some guy in college who’d lost a lot of weight. I complimented his efforts and he attributed his success to working out at a particular gym. I knew where the gym was. I’d driven by it a few times. But, for some reason, I was compelled to say, “I work out there too.”
Most folks would likely let a comment like that slide. This guy did not. He furrowed his brow, drew back his chin and straight up said, “you’re lying.” You can imagine the sputtering back peddling that ensued on my part. I don’t think that guy ever spoke to me again.
Why did I do that? Was it some attempt to show solidarity or empathy? Was it a fear of appearing uncool because I didn’t work out? Who the heck knows? Suffice it to say, he did me a favor, cemented in my mind, that lying is often unnecessary and almost always inexcusable. Since that day, I’ve been extremely cautious about letting any whiff of a little white lie escape my lips and I’m dubious of anyone whose breath smells too sweetly of exaggeration.
We all have a responsibility to tell the truth. But those in positions of power shoulder a greater responsibility because their lies, even if told few and far between result in the segmenting of society and fueling an unhealthy cynicism.
It seems the 1960s era counter-culture mantra of “don’t trust anyone over 30,” has become immersed into the American psyche. Those who were once considered pillars of society are squinted at with a distrustful stink eye of a grizzled cowboy with one hand on his holster. Distrust of doctors has led to a divisive anti-vax, herbal remedy sub-culture. Distrust of clergy leaves lost souls floundering for a moral compass. Distrust of educators divides parents and is a disservice to mostly underprivileged students. Distrust of government feeds the beast of crackpot conspiracy theories and ongoing gridlock. At the top of this heap of skepticism sits a smug anchorman at his news desk telling us to be afraid of everything and everyone.
We have been inundated with hyperbolic newscasts and sound bites often served up with little context or perspective. We are trained to fear, to question everything and everybody, well except those whose ideologies align with our own. We often give those folks a pass, even if what they’re serving smells a lot like a hot pile of steaming… “cabbage.”
Swallowing lies is unhealthy. But being unable to discern the truth is worse as it starves us of community and unity and pits people against each other out of fear.
And now, in a nauseating irony, one who’s worked so diligently to seed our suspicions is himself suspicious. And to what end Brian Williams? To make yourself seem “cool” like when I lied about going to the gym? Being caught in my lie was humiliating enough without it being broadcast on TV. Millions of people weren’t counting on me to deliver truth during the nightly news. Would the weight of that responsibility combined with a few years of maturity have influenced my behavior, prevented me from blurting out something so unavailing and plainly untrue? I’d like to think so. I’d also still like to think it’s possible to teach my children that some people in positions of authority can be trusted. Maybe that guy from college should teach a mandatory ethics class, slam any potential embellishments back down to earth with a terse, “you’re lying.” But the future probably depends heavily on mamas telling their aspiring doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors and news anchors that character is crucial for the future of our once civilized society.