I recently overheard a conversation of a pair of twenty-something girls. It was obvious that they were devoutly religious, and they were talking about dating. One of them was explaining that she felt uncomfortable with the way her boyfriend lifts her up in the air, because then their bodies are against each other and it tempts her.
There is no end of interesting articles that could come out of that conversation. But for now, set aside your views about religion, sex, or whatever else this might call to mind.
This post is about dishonesty.
It didn’t add up. The problem is: if this very attractive young woman really was that uncomfortable, that tempted, that ashamed of her sexual urges, she wouldn’t have been talking about it so freely. Shame and guilt don’t fit the kind of confidence and comfort that she was projecting, in a public place, in a voice loud enough to be overheard by a bystander wearing ear buds. She wasn’t behaving like a penitent seeking absolution. Instead, she was projecting authority — like one who expects to be admired for what she’s saying. My BS alert screamed at maximum volume. She was deceiving her friend, and deceiving herself. I’m pretty comfortable guessing that she and her boyfriend have done a lot more than hug — but casually offering up the secret shame of hugging was an easy and convenient way to deny it, and play the role of someone a lot more immaculate than she really is. No wonder she was happy to be overheard.
Dishonesty is all around us. In today’s world, honesty is loneliness.
Why should that be? Don’t all parents teach their children honesty? Don’t we see exhortations to be honest everywhere?
Yes, in a way. But at the same time we are teaching the exact opposite.
Look at the reasons we’re typically given for why we should be honest. You might get caught. It can hurt others. You’ll feel guilty. It’s selfish. God says so. All of these reasons have one glaring weakness in common: they grant that dishonesty gets you real-world benefits, which you are then expected to deny yourself.
But people need to make choices that let them live in the real world. If you offer people moral reasoning that makes honesty the enemy of living a happy, successful life, what do you suppose most of them will choose?
So this is where most of us find ourselves today: giving lip service to the idea that honesty is the best policy, but secretly believing that dishonesty is the only effective policy.
If you ask the man on the street if he can give you any reasons why dishonesty isn’t practical (I have), he’ll probably tell you: “But lying is practical.”
What comes from that? We get exactly what we deserve: a world full of people who have become so good at rationalizing away dishonesty that they don’t even know how to think about it (and usually prefer not to). At best, we think, honesty is a luxury that most of us can’t afford. There’s no way to draw a line that shows how much dishonesty is okay, and that suits everybody just fine, because it means there’s no standard to judge them by. They won’t be held accountable; everybody will let them get away with it, at least some of the time. And most people get away with everything they can.
But dishonesty is not practical. Not if you look at it closely.
Have we trained ourselves to think only about the consequences of getting caught? I want to talk about the consequences of getting away with it. The end result isn’t “God judges you when you die, and then you’ll wish you hadn’t enjoyed your life so much.” The end result, for the skilled liar who is good at justifying his own lies and knows how to get away with them, is not a carefree success story. It’s a walking pile of misery and frustration with no possibility of recovery. For just a few minutes, put yourself in the liar’s shoes, and look at what you have to do when you lie.
The first thing to notice is that it is literally impossible to lie just once. That’s because in every compromise you make on your honesty and your integrity, you aren’t just lying to someone else. You must always lie to yourself as well. For a start, you have to find a way to believe that whatever you gained by lying (whether it’s money, or respect, or escape from consequences) is rightfully yours. If you can manage that, then you must also find a way to convince yourself that you’re still honest, that you’re still someone who can be trusted, taken seriously, and believed.
Maybe it means trying to erase your deceptions from your memory. Maybe it means (somehow) forcing yourself to believe that what you said is really true. Maybe it means telling yourself that your victim deserved it, so that you recast yourself as an agent of justice. However you do it, you’re lying to yourself.
What can be more destructive? Self-deception means doing violence to your own mind. It means driving a wedge between yourself and reality. It literally means sabotaging your own ability to know truth from falsehood. Setting yourself at odds with reality is no trivial thing. Taken far enough, separation from reality is a hallmark of mental illness.
Let’s follow this road a little farther. Lying to yourself is not the end of the damage you do to yourself; it’s only the start. Because whatever lie you told, you now have to keep it up. For instance, if you made someone believe you’re an expert about history, or oil companies, or whatever you may have dreamed up, then you’ve just fabricated an alternate universe that you’re condemned to live in, and you have to keep the person you lied to in it as well. Better to get caught right away, because the longer you can keep up the deception, the worse it will be for you.
Did you think you were scoring some kind of victory by succeeding in your deception? The person you lied to just became your master, and you’re sentenced to serve them indefinitely by keeping them fooled, by maintaining the false reality you’ve spun. And the stakes only get higher. The longer you remain successful at deception, the more there is to come crashing down if the illusion fails. The more dishonesty you get away with, the more you take away your own freedom to be yourself. Keep at it long enough, and you won’t even want to think about what being yourself means.
If you continue to get away with your deceits, you come to have relationships built on deception. You now live with a fear that you don’t dare to name. It’s a fear of losing the respect and comfort you never deserved. The lies you told yourself have got you trapped, and your ability to fearlessly face the truth about yourself is nowhere to be found. As to those you’re deceiving, the closer you get to anyone, the harder you have to work to prevent them from discovering and exposing your liar’s heart.
Better to get caught and lose it all now, because it only gets more tragic as you continue to escape the consequences that should be yours.
More and more, you come to prefer being around people who are dishonest like you. If they catch you out in your lies, so what? They’ll just give you a wink and a nod, and you’ll do the same for them. They won’t judge you. But the honest people, the ones who will judge you for your lies, the ones who have the right to look down on liars the way you can only pretend to do — they’re the ones you fear; they’re the ones you resent. The possibility of their judgment feels far more powerful and dangerous than it used to.
You’re now deliberately surrounding yourself with people who can’t be trusted. Keep this up, and what you have are no longer friends. Now they fall into two categories: dupes and accomplices. Does this still sound practical? Because by now, it may be too late. Your dishonesty is already bringing a lot of painful consequences, but you no longer dare place the blame where it belongs. That would require a level of self-awareness that you’ve already disowned.
And what about the honest people, who to your mind look sometimes like omnipotent judges, and sometimes like suckers? They’re still around. Only now you aren’t comfortable with them. They’re the ones that keep you trapped in the fantasies you constructed. They’re the ones who keep you from “being yourself.” You’re a little different around them now. You don’t tell them they’re wrong to advocate honesty. But you look for ways to think less of them. You look for any little breaches of honesty, or any little compromises that they make. You discover that the feeling you get from discovering those failures isn’t disappointment, but satisfaction. When you say “Ah ha, he’s been a hypocrite all along,” you’re set free from taking them seriously, at least for a little while. And the reason for that satisfaction is just another dangerous truth that you dare not become aware of.
Yet the honest people are still in your life, and you still need them in a way that you didn’t need them before. They have no idea how badly you need them. Oh, you still resent them and their standards that you don’t measure up to. But now you need very badly for them to make you feel like you do. To put it another way: their judgment that you fear, you have also come to need. They have come to wield an awesome power over you. They aren’t aware of it and they never wanted it, but they have it. Their power is in their the ability to grant you the honor and respect that belongs to people of honesty and integrity. It’s an honor that means little coming from those who aid and abet your dishonesty; it’s only meaningful to you when it comes from people who deserve it back.
You crave their esteem, but you don’t deserve it, and you know they’ll take it away if they find out what you really are. You discover that unearned respect isn’t an achievement; it’s a burden that grows heavier and heavier.
And you blame them for it. Even as you need their approval, you feel it as a heavy blanket of oppression. If you have to put it in words, you might say they’re forcing you to play a role. They, you think, are they reason you can’t be yourself. And the feeling that builds up inside you is a very ugly one.
The more they believe in you, the more you resent them. The more they give you the benefit of the doubt for the little clues you can’t prevent from slipping out, the more you feel trapped in the task of maintaining the illusion in which you deserve their trust and respect.
When someone close finally hold you accountable — which in the end is the only thing an honest person can do — it’s no longer a simple matter of apologizing and making amends. Honest accountability is no longer possible to a liar as developed as you. The very idea has come to feel like a threat to your existence. It’s too late to know that you aren’t being hurt by this person’s judgment, but by your own sophistries.
So you snap. You explode. You let out all the frustrations you’ve stored up. You let them have the fire of hell, and by now you know what hell is. All the pressure you’ve put yourself under, that you’ve blamed on them, spews out in a torrent of abuse, and the more unfair it is, the better.
This is what it now means to “be yourself.”
What did they do to deserve it? They believed you.
It’s that simple. They expected your words to be true. They trusted that your actions would live up to your words. You are punishing them for the crime of believing you. You are punishing them for treating you like an honest person. You are inflicting torment on them for treating you with exactly the trust and respect that you craved.
That’s what waits at the end of the road that you walk by choosing to be dishonest.
There is no one that a liar fears and hates more than the one who believes him.
Does that sound practical?
I have to say it again:
There is no one that a liar fears and hates more than the one who believes him.
Self-deception is epidemic. People everywhere separate themselves from reality, and make themselves unable to distinguish truth from falsehood. The consequences are all around us.
Is it practical to lie? Is it selfish? Does it make your life better?
You might say, “But if you don’t take it to such extremes, it will never harm you that badly.” It’s true that the self-harm varies with the degree of the dishonesty involved. But if you know the harm you cause yourself, you’ll understand that “just a little dishonesty” is like “just a little cyanide.”
You might never get to the ugly end of the road, but it’s still a terrible path to walk. You are still unavoidably placing yourself in a position of self-deception. You’re still trapping yourself into maintaining fabricated realities for yourself and others, and sabotaging your ability to know truth from falsehood, with regard to the most important person in the universe — you. Even if it’s just a little white lie, like telling her she looks good in that outfit, or telling him his poem isn’t terrible, you’re still inventing alternate realities and condemning yourself to live in them for as long as you can keep it up. You’re still replacing trust with suspicion, and replacing friends with accomplices. Is that any kind of life to live?
And this is when you’re not getting caught!
Take a closer look at the world (the real world) that liars create: by trafficking in rationalizations, you enable the worst around you. You give aid and comfort to the most malignant of deceivers, to treacherous charlatans who will betray anything for any reason. You destroy your ability to hold liars accountable. And you betray truth-tellers, making it harder for others to be honest with themselves and with you.
The results speak for themselves. A world in which dishonesty is accepted will grow always worse, never better. Things can’t be done on the honor system anymore. Where transcontinental business deals used to be done on a handshake, lawyers now own the world, because betrayal and the search for loopholes are the expected course of events. Getting away with things is normal; correcting a bill because somebody undercharged you is a huge favor that nobody expects. This is all because of the tiny petty compromises we make. The lies we tell ourselves create a world in which no one can trust anyone.
To call this practical is an abuse of the language.
It takes strength, and courage, and sometimes loneliness to be honest. There are barriers against truth throughout our culture. There are liars who don’t want the truth anywhere near them. In George Orwell’s words: “In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
But nobody lacks what it takes to be honest. Nobody. So go, and be revolutionary. It isn’t a battle fought on the barricades. It doesn’t start with politics, or media. It isn’t about speaking truth to power; it’s about speaking truth to self. It starts within you. In the excellent words of the 12-step program, take “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself. You’ll find what you need.
It isn’t about changing the world; but honesty is what the world needs from you, and it is the necessary precondition of change. And you will be far better off. Integrity is strength; integrity is wholeness. You’ll learn to replace self-doubt with confidence. In place of the fear of judgment will be the pride that only honesty and integrity can command. You can experience the clean comfort of trust and accountability in your relations with others. You’ll be more at home in your own skin. You’ll thank yourself for it.
So go, and be revolutionary.