Why We Lie, and the Value of Truthfulness

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I think that most of us are familiar with the story of young George Washington chopping down his father’s beloved cherry tree.  When confronted by his father, George replies, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.”  Having admiration for his son’s honesty, the father decides not to punish him.

The story is meant to teach us the value of honesty, but guess what?  It never happened.  The story was made up some ten years after the death of George Washington.  So this begs the question, “Is it right to lie if the intention is good?”  After all, the story is meant to inspire honesty, even if it is based on a lie.

There are many advantages to lying, such as gaining admiration, maintaining relationships, securing employment, and avoiding punishment, just to name a few.  But there are also many disadvantages if one is caught, such as losing respect, ruining relationships, compromising one’s job, and facing punishment.

There are scientific studies that show that lying is actually quite difficult for the human mind, because it requires holding two conflicting beliefs at the same time, and repressing the one we know is true in favor of the one that is false.  And yet, other studies show that the average person lies several times a day.

There are also studies which suggest that we are not born with the natural propensity to lie, but that lying is something we learn as a means of emotional and physical survival.  The story of George Washington and the cherry tree, while it would seem to convey a positive message, is also a bit misleading in that it suggests to children that if they tell the truth they will always be rewarded.  The reality is that our honesty is often met with some form of punishment.

A child who has not yet been programmed to make distinctions between “right” and “wrong” is quite innocent by nature.  His mother will sometimes give him a cookie from the cookie jar, and it happens that one day he takes one while she is in the other room.  At this point, the child has no concept of property or stealing.  He doesn’t see anything wrong in his action.

However, upon noticing that one of the cookies is missing, the mother confronts him.  The child naturally tells the truth, as he has no reason not to.  But then the mother takes him over her lap and spanks him in an effort to ingrain in him that taking something without permission is wrong.  Whether or not the child comprehends the idea that his actions are wrong, what he does learn is that there are personal consequences for his actions.

Assuming that the child does not quite comprehend the idea of stealing, he once again takes a cookie from the cookie jar without the permission of his mother.  The mother discovers another cookie has gone missing and once again confronts him.  This time the child reflects back upon the last incident.  He knows that if he admits the truth he will be punished, and so he denies it.  And if the lie is convincing, the mother believes him and spares him a spanking.

If the child has learned anything at all from this, he has learned that by repressing the truth one can avoid punishment.  And if the lie is told well enough, he may even be rewarded.  After all, the mother might feel guilty about her initial accusation and try to appease the child by giving him another cookie.

As the child grows he comes to learn that lying has many other advantages as well.  It is not only useful for avoiding punishment and gaining rewards, but is also useful in sparing the feelings of others.  In addition, the child learns that lying can also have its advantages in the social arena, in terms of gaining and preserving friendships, avoiding judgment and rejection, and even manipulating others to get what you want.

By the time one reaches adulthood, lying has become second nature.  We do it so much, in fact, that we aren’t even aware of often we do it.  Most of it takes place in the form of what we call “little white lies”, half-truths, exaggerated truth, or simply omitting the truth.  For some people lying is compulsive.  They will lie even when they have no reason to.  And still there are others who lie pathologically.  They lie so well that have even convinced themselves that what they are saying is true.

Now, I’m not suggesting that lying is always inherently wrong.  I’m not one to hold to moral absolutes.  And just to give an example, you might consider the many people who lied about housing Jews during the Nazi occupation.  Had they been truthful, many more innocent people would have lost their lives.  However, I do believe that we lie too much and too often, and that the consequences of such incessant lying is that we wind up with tears in the fabric of society.  Whether it’s politicians making promises they know they’ll never keep, or lovers denying accusations they know are true, the excess of lies in our society causes us to question the validity of everything.  We can’t trust anyone, it would seem.  But I think what comes into question more than anything is the quality of our personal relationships.

If we’re not honest with our friends and family… If we’re not honest with our romantic partners… then how do ever know if those relationships are genuine?  How do we know if those people really appreciate us for who we are, or if they’re just enamored with the false image we present them?

And furthermore, if we cannot be honest with those who are closest to us, then how can we insure that they are being honest with us?  Without knowing for certain if one is being honest, it is difficult to trust.  And when it is difficult to trust, it is difficult to develop real intimacy.  And where there is no intimacy, there is a chasm.  We find ourselves disconnected.

But I believe that the chasm can be bridged.  And I believe that the way to bridge that gap is by approaching our relationships with greater honesty.  Sometimes this seems difficult because we don’t want to lose the respect of our friends.  But guess what?  If you friends only respect you because of something that isn’t really true, then they don’t really respect you at all.  In fact, a true friend will respect you more for telling the truth, even if the truth is unfavorable.

Furthermore, lying takes a great deal of effort.  When we tell a lie, we find we have to maintain it.  We have to go one telling it and embellishing it.  We have to remember all the details very carefully, and we must always cover our tracks.  We have to be cunning and deceptive.  And we often become paranoid, suspecting that the truth may be discovered.  This can all be quite time consuming, as well as mentally and emotionally exhausting.  Even when we lie in order to spare someone their feelings, it can leave us feeling inauthentic.

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Telling the truth, on the other hand, hardly requires any effort at all.  It also offers a certain peace of mind, because we aren’t constantly worrying that someone’s going to find out what’s really going on.  We don’t have to make up a story.  We don’t have to hide the evidence or sneak around.  We don’t have to wonder if people like us for who were really are.

In addition, our honesty encourages honesty in those we interact with.  It’s not an absolute guarantee, but it is much more likely.  If people respect you for your honesty, then they will tend to be honest in return.  And if you can show appreciation for their honesty by withholding judgment and condemnation, they will feel all the more encouraged to open up in truthfulness.

Sometimes we lie because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but being honest with others doesn’t mean being brutally honest.  There are considerate ways to express your truth.  It doesn’t have to be brutal.  You can be sensitive and compassionate.  And you can always use the method of two compliments and a critique in order to soften the blow.  The fact is that sometimes the truth is hard to hear, and it won’t always be received well, no matter how well you try to be sensitive about it.  However, if you are persistent in your truth, you will gain the trust and respect of others.

People will value your integrity, because your words and your actions are in alignment, and your word is honorable.  And by maintaining truthfulness, you maintain a clear perspective on reality, which allows you to be more clear-headed. And when you’re clear-headed you function on a higher level, you make better decisions, and you’re more able to avoid situations that may land you in trouble.  Ultimately, when it comes right down to it, it’s really all about just keeping it real.

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