I know a guy who lies. All the time. About really big stuff, about his past and his job and his schooling and the famous actress who hit on him last night. He’s egregious about it, spinning the kinds of yarns that almost dare you to look him in the eye and say “You’re full of shit.”
This article in the New Yorker about suspense writer Dan Mallory reminded me of this dude I know. Mallory tells the same kinds of lies that this guy tells, the big sweeping kind. About cancer and dead parents, about personal heroism and personal sacrifice. Liars like these are destabilizing, because they call into question everything you know about them. I would sit across from this guy at lunch and he would tell me about things that were happening in his life and I wouldn’t know if he was shoveling shit or not. Some people can deal with that – I have to imagine that by now everybody he knows is aware he’s a liar on a pathological level – but I can’t. It’s too disorienting, and that was before he told some whoppers about me.
But here’s the thing about Dan Mallory and this dude I know – they lie because they’re hurting. They don’t feel like they’re enough, so they have to make up these intense stories, and they have to keep topping themselves. They’re probably worried you wouldn’t like them if you knew the real them, that they’re boring little people. But I’ll tell you, the guy I know who is a liar is one of the smarter people I’ve ever met. And reading this New Yorker piece makes me think Dan Mallory is no dummy either. This tragic lack of self-esteem leads people like this to weave these incredible stories that eventually get exposed, and they fuck up their own lives. They become more interesting, but not in the ways they had hoped.
Liars like that are disorienting, but they’re also comforting. All big-time sinners are comforting, because we get to compare ourselves to them and say “Well, I’m not THAT bad.” You know a guy who claims he fought off a mountain lion with a Swiss Army knife and you get to say, “I bend the truth, but I’m not weaving absolute webs of nonsense, so I’m okay.” And, I mean, you are. We’re all okay, even these guys who lie a bunch (it’s that they don’t know that they’re okay that makes them lie).
When I got sober I knew I had to quit lying. When I became a Buddhist I made a vow to stop lying (to use wise speech, in the Buddhist parlance). And when I compare myself to these big game liars, it seems easy. But the reality is that telling the truth is very, very hard, and it’s something that begins inside of ourselves, long before we ever open our mouths.
Being rigorously honest has a lot of value in sobriety; if I’m not lying I can’t lie to people about my drinking. It’s when I start fibbing about where I’ve been, what I’m doing, that trouble becomes possible. But again, the big lies are easy to avoid. It’s the smaller lies that are harder, and I think those are the ones that you really have to work on.
We all do the small lies. You walk past a mess in your home and your significant other asks why you didn’t clean it up and you say, “Oh shit, I didn’t see that!” You did. You just didn’t want to clean it, and you don’t want to feel like a bad person now that you’ve been confronted, or you don’t want to get yelled at. Your boss asks where that assignment is and you say, “I’m working on it, I’ll have it right to you!” even though you haven’t even begun. You’re supposed to go meet up with friends but you don’t feel like it anymore, so you tell them you’ve got a stomach virus.
Each of these little things, they all add up. They all chip away at you, and they make you more and more comfortable with lowering your ethics, step by step. What’s more, these kinds of lies enable you to live your worst life; you’re not keeping your space clean and you’re not getting your work done. You’re isolating yourself and killing your social circle. When you don’t allow yourself to lie you end up cleaning up the mess or doing the work or being wiser in how you make plans, because when you get asked about it later you’ll have to tell the truth, and your boss does not want to hear “I haven’t even started this thing yet,” and your friends will be mad if you say “I don’t feel like keeping these plans we made.”
Of course lies lubricate society. We lie to each other all the time in order to facilitate relationships or navigate situations. Is it possible to approach these situations and be truthful without totally screwing up the unspoken social contract? I think so. What’s more, I think that being honest – tactfully so – helps us stand up for ourselves better. If you don’t want meatloaf for dinner, just say so! It’s as easy as that.
But tactful is the key. The Buddha prescribed wise speech as one of the spokes of the Eightfold Path that could lead us to enlightenment, and he didn’t just mean ‘telling the truth.’ Wise speech means so much more than that; after all, everybody has met a guy who loves ‘telling it like it is,’ and that guy is always an asshole. The truth, spoken unkindly or at the wrong time, is worse than a lie.
When we talk about lying there’s always someone who brings up the most extreme scenarios – what if ICE knocked on your door and wanted to know the whereabouts of an immigrant family? There’s a story I’ve heard that I like, and that reminds me of the kind of ‘lying’ a Vulcan or a Jedi might do (I presented this quote before):
“There is a story I was once told by a monk that illustrates this. The story goes that the Buddha was doing walking meditation in the forest when he perceived with his “all-seeing eye” an incident about to occur, and planned how to respond to it. A moment later a terrified-looking man ran past. The Buddha then stepped a few feet to the left and waited. A gang of brigands approached and asked, “While standing there, did you see a man run past?”
““No,” replied the Buddha. He was, of course, telling the truth. He had been standing somewhere else when he saw the man run past.”
Anyway, the point of this isn’t to find the small moments or loopholes that allow for lying (although the Buddha was not technically lying in the above example). It’s to focus on the fact that lying is something we all do, all the time, and that it is very much the gateway to larger unethical behavior.
When you have a lie available to you there is no wrong you might not commit. Being willing to lie is the first prerequisite for knowingly committing any crime, any wrongdoing. Being honest is the fundamental foundation of all ethics – something we don’t talk about a lot in this culture anymore. I’m reading a book about karma written by a Tibetan monk and, in passing, he notes that the West is deeply interested in justice and equality, but not so interested in ethics. This he finds baffling and contradictory.
The biggest harm, though, may come when we lie to ourselves. Inside is where lies begin, and we do this unthinkingly. I’ve heard humans described as self-justification machines, and we’ve all internally denied reality and lied to ourselves in order to justify our actions. Our cruelty, our selfishness, our casual meanness is all explained away by saying the other person had it coming, or that we had to take those actions in order to safeguard ourselves. The truth is rarely that simple.
The lie we tell ourselves is that everything is personal, that every slight and inconvenience and problem is aimed at us, personally. The truth is that almost nothing is personal; even when someone is reaching out to directly harm you they’re likely acting out on their own pain, suffering and conditioning and you just happen to be the easy target. When we lie to ourselves and say that everything that happens to us is personal (the “WHY ME?” school of thought) we truly open ourselves to sick rationalizations and justifications.
This is how those big liars ended up as big liars. They lie to themselves first; they tell themselves false stories about their worth and their place in the world and how lying is the only way to get the love they need. When they lie to themselves like this – when they won’t see reality as it is – they take unethical actions; in this case externalized lying. And the lying that began as a way to defend themselves metastasizes and turns into something more cancerous, and that damages them and their relationships.
You might think it’s harsh to look at the delusions and confusions under which we all operate as lies, but I think that it’s vital to recognize our own parts in these delusions and confusions. No matter how many times we are told or shown that we are valuable or loved we find ourselves questioning or disbelieving that. More and more it seems to me that we need to call out the inner voices that undermine us as liars, because that’s what they are.
Let’s compare that inner liar to the big liar I know in real life. I eventually told that guy I love him, and that I am here for him when he wants help, but that I can’t have him in my life as long as he’s not treating his problem. I drew loving boundaries with him, and I am trying to do the same with my inner liar. I’m not mad at the voice that tells me I am bad, or unlovable, or worthless. I accept that this voice is speaking from pain, and I try to hold compassion for that… but at the same time I don’t let that voice dominate my inner conversation.
One way that I battle the inner liar is to meditate; this practice allows me access to seeing the world as it is, not as I think it is. The clearer I see things, the more obvious the lies are, and the less I have to listen to them.
When it comes to external lying… I still do it. Not as much as I used to (looking back at my life I realize I lied ALL THE TIME, just as a way to streamline conversations (so do you, according to a study that shows the average American lies two the three times in a 10 minute conversation). It’s no wonder my other ethical compasses were so off from true north), but I am very conscious about it and make an effort to not do it. Sometimes in a work situation I find a lie coming out of my mouth before I even have a chance to consider what I’m saying; this is a failure of my mindfulness training. When I’m being mindful I have the space to respond, not react. When I react is when I lie, or when I say something hurtful.
What I try to do is find the right way to be honest. Rather than make a big story about why I can’t come out tonight, I’ll just say “Hey, I won’t be coming out tonight” and leave it at that. Sometimes people follow up with questions, sometimes they don’t, and if they do I remain honest, saying I’m not up to it. I haven’t invented a disease or self-diagnosed a mental illness to explain why I want to stay in, I just say that I want to stay in without outright saying “I would rather be home alone,” which would sound hurtful. What’s especially cool is that by not making up some elaborate lie, I give my friend the opportunity to gently talk me into coming out after all – which almost always ends up being better than staying home.
As a society we’re in a weird place when it comes to lying. Our president lies all day, every day. His supporters don’t care, while his opponents call him out on it… but I wonder if they’re doing what truly needs to be done, which is dedicating themselves to truth in their own lives. The way we combat lying on such a grand scale is not to fact check it but rather to commit ourselves to undermining lying in general. I think back to that monk talking about how the West doesn’t bother with ethics and I see that happening here – people decrying the president’s lies while lying in their own lives. The problem they have is not with lying, but with who is doing the lying, and about what.
(This is something I have come to believe about online harassment and abuse; people don’t have a problem with it, they just get mad about WHO is being abused. This is because of a lack of ethics. But that’s for another day)
If we want to live better lives and make a better world the very first step we should take is to reduce our lying, or become more aware of it. By eliminating as much lying as possible from our lives – externally and internally – we give ourselves the space to act ethically in other areas.
And I’m not lying about my boundaries with that guy. I love him and miss him and hope to one day be there for him when he takes the initial steps to get better.