For a long time now, I have been thinking about the issue of lying, mainly because I have voluntarily given up the practice of the truth. To me, it is like trying to fly.
Lying is more or less unacceptable in certain cultures, certain families and religious orientations in the United States and many other countries. I, for example, grew up in a culture where it was prohibited, but everyone from your mother to your teachers did it. The prohibition seemed to apply only to me or was itself a lie.
Of course, with all these fine examples around me and since I was a child who was always in trouble, I soon found irresistible the fine art of lying consciously. I remember the exact moment. I came into our apartment crying that a big bully had hit me. I wanted the comfort of my mother’s arms.
Instead my mother responded harshly. “You go right back outside and hit him back. If you don’t I will hit you. How many directives about how to conduct myself were hidden in that one sentence? I learned them all eventually and gave up many later in life.
Yet, at that moment, even more frightened, I went back outside. There was no one in the street at all since it was 6 P.M., the ubiquitous dinnertime in New York. I wandered around frightened for a while. I did not know who he was or where he lived. In fact, I had never seen him before. What to do?
Finally I hit upon just the right scheme. I marched back inside standing as tall as possible at my then four-year-old height and said, “O.K. I did it.” That was the end of this little lesson. My mother was satisfied. I had intentionally and consciously lied and it was a good thing. It saved me from two possible beatings.
In the United States in which I grew up, honor and truth were considered virtues, although everyone lied when necessary. They lied to prove a point, to hide an affair, to avoid punishment or to make a better impression than they might otherwise, that is, to gain an advantage. These are all within the normal and normative bounds of lying.
Of course, there are those whose lies are more dangerous, more consistent and more a part of a problematic character. Psychology calls these people sociopaths or psychopaths in the Western world and considers them dangerous.
These days I live in Costa Rica, where lying is accepted unambivalently. It is a social skill. “You look beautiful today. I could not make it because I became sick and too sick even to call. I know we had a 1 o’clock date for lunch, but I didn’t get out of work until 4.” And the Costa Rican piece de resistance, “I have been in traffic all this time”. It took me three hours to get here from three kilometers away (indeed this might sometimes be the case, but is hugely exaggerated by Costa Ricans). In other words, lying is considered an essential part of social graces in Costa Rica, where, in the United States, it is generally an unfortunate and amoral defense.
Many years into adulthood, I took up a spiritual practice and vowed never to lie again. That only turned out to be another lie, as I could not adhere to it either. Imagine, “Yes, those pants make you look fat. No, I did not like your talk. You think you are much smarter than you are. No, the members of this group do not want you to participate. We think you talk too much.” I had almost no friends left when I realized the error of my ways.
I had failed, but I had learned an important lesson. We are a social species and to keep the social aspect of our lives running smoothly, we must lie. This is necessary both in the United States and in other countries such as Costa Rica to oil the wheels of conviviality. The truth is much too painful and often too dangerous as well.
Of course, one important thing has changed drastically and rapidly in the United States in these years. Lying is no longer covert and tactful. No one knows how it happened and many researchers are applying for grants to study the problem. We have instead elected a “Liar in Chief,” who lies consistently, boldly and publicly. This has emboldened his followers to do the same and, in this act, he has eradicated this sort of ambivalence from the psyches of the country’s citizens. Of course, lying has become frequent and transparent, so transparent that it sometimes seems like a good joke. But it is no joke. There is no longer ambivalence or self-righteousness. Injustice has triumphed. Lying has come out of the closet and is much admired in certain circles. Believe me!