I’ve been reading an absorbing article in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, entitled, “Why We Lie.” I’m going to guess that it might be the most widely-read article that the magazine has ever published; as the article posits, we all lie, and the title draws us to want to understand ourselves a little better, since most of us regard that characteristic as a negative. (Why do I choose to do that, anyway?)
The article is fascinating and full of the reasons and motivations for our lies. (Gosh, it even makes me feel bad to write that line.) Some of our deceptions are protective, some are ego-driven, some are avoidance-based and some are even altruistic: lies intended to help someone or avoid their discomfort. (Can I claim ownership to this category as my only source of lies?) It turns out that we all have dishonesty built into our makeup.
“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at. We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends and loved ones. Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”
Wow. I never realized the extent of the dark deceit that surrounds each of us. Certainly, I acknowledge the ubiquity of lies in everyday life: (does “fibs” make that sound less awful?). Advertisements promise results that could never be true, tabloid magazines publish stories with no semblance to reality, political pundits dish out speculation and innuendo without any basis in fact, and social media simply multiplies the problem. But, within our own circle of family and friends? (I wonder now whether those kind words about my sweater were sincere or sinister?)
The reality of our lying makes working in Nicaragua even more difficult than it might otherwise be. Already, I must navigate relationships and circumstances through translation and my North American eyes. Now, in addition, I read that there are also untruths being spoken, even if for the very best and most reasonable of reasons: hunger, shelter, health, life itself. I’m not naive; I am well aware of the frequency of exaggeration and overstatement by people in dire need of assistance, financial and otherwise. But reading an entire article about it underscores what has been mostly an uncomfortable subtext. (Truth be told, now, it feels more omnipresent and, somehow, more problematic than before.) Should the possibility of half-truths suddenly feel more offensive insulting or more threatening?
I’ve thought about that and decided that the answer is likely “no.” If the article in National Geographic is even close to being accurate, we’ve all been subject to speaking and hearing lies during our entire lives. There is nothing new happening here, only some data to confirm it. It’s a bit like enduring a destructive overnight storm and awakening in the morning to read details about what you have already personally experienced. (I swear, the hail stones were the size of melons!)
But there’s another reality which mitigates any sense of wrong that I might feel after being lied to. When someone utters an untruth, often he/she is the one who is most hurt by it. Lies can be like items posted on the Internet, in that they never really go away. (All lies should be marked as spam.) They continue to exist, hiding in memory until the moment when they can cause the maximum in embarrassment and loss. Falsehoods diminish who we are by eroding our credibility, our connection to truth, and to our own self-worth. And those erosions hurt. A deliberate lie to someone else is also a lie to ourselves, made even worse because we know the truth. The conflict is, ultimately, wrenching. (Is this why on some days I don’t feel as well as on others?)
We each have little in this world that is truly ours. (What about my guitars?) Material items come into our lives, and then they go. The people in our lives enter and exit. Always. We take nothing from this world but our own integrity and sense of honor, two matters about which we can attempt to lie to ourselves, but without success. It’s true in politics, in business, in farming, philanthropy and any other endeavor we can imagine.
I doubt that reflections here will have much impact on people in their day-to-day correspondence with each other; as the article observes, it’s “in us.” But like any nagging habit, we can work on it. We can make it better. Ultimately, our well-being is built upon what is real, and whoever we are, truth will out….