Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Some Truths About Lies

“Where is your brother Abel?”
          The Lord asks Cain that question, and Cain answers: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Very early in Genesis, the Judeo-Christian book of origins, we encounter the first lie.
          On an individual basis, what is the genesis of lying? It has its root in human nature. The infant is born with simple wants. It wants the nipple, it wants to be rid of an uncomfortable wetness. A squall gets its wants taken care of. But as the child grows older not all its wants are met. Instead of gratification it gets, No, you cannot stay up late. No, you cannot have the other boy’s toy.
          The first outright lie may begin with a cookie. A child – call him Herman – is not allowed to have cookies before dinner. But he wants one, so while his mother is putting clothes in the dryer he raids the cookie jar. When she returns to the kitchen she looks at him with an expression of disapproval. He wonders why. The cookie jar is back in place, and he has hurriedly consumed the evidence. Still, she asks, “Herman. Did you eat a cookie?” Punishment looms. “No, Mommy,” he answers.
          His first lie has been spoken. The results are discouraging. Herman gets a scolding: he has told a lie, and that’s a very bad thing; he should never, never lie. Mommy orders him to stand in a corner. And, worst of all, when dessert comes that evening – apple pie, and with whipping cream too! – he gets none; instead he is sent to his room.
          After a torrent of tears comes some hard thinking, and Herman (a smart little fellow) realizes how Mommy had known. It must have been the cookie crumbs around his mouth; he gobbled it and didn’t have time to wipe away the crumbs (Mommy was always telling him to wipe the crumbs from around his mouth). That was it. Next time . . .
          For there is a next time, and a next. And a next. Herman is no different from you and me. If we keep a conscious watch out for lies (including our own) we will see that they run through the fabric of life. Lying is so prevalent that disbelief, or just doubt as to the truth of what we hear or read, becomes a natural response. Eventually Herman learns that there’s no tooth fairy, no white-bearded, jolly fat man bearing gifts for good little boys. He observes that Mommy lies; she even uses him to lie for her when she asks him to answer the phone, and if it’s Granny to tell her that she’s taking a bath. Daddy lies too; one day he called in sick at work and then went fishing in a big boat. The kids at school lie – a lot. To teacher, to one another. Herman lies, and his lies are better prepared and sounder than the cookie lie – no crumbs. The crumb-free lie is the answer, and it often works. It gets him what he wants and it prevents him from getting what he doesn’t want.
          A study revealed that lying reaches its peak around the ages of twelve to fourteen. Puberty! Sex! The time when one is trying to disentangle oneself from the bonds of childhood and wants to explore the tantalizing mysteries of adulthood. But the young person is definitely not allowed to explore those mysteries; rules and restrictions become more rigorous. This opposition – the wanting and the being denied – has its predictable result: lies, elaborate, sophisticated ones.
          The turmoil settles down by the late teens, when the young are allowed to take responsibility for their actions.
          And then you are an adult, and you carry on your life, lying a little or a lot. Those driven by strong, irrational wants – such as power and greed and sex – will likely lie a lot.
          Lying reaches its lowest ebb in old age. With most of the wants gone, what is there to lie about?
          Wants: the root of our lies. And when will man stop wanting?

                                                                                     Mea Culpa
          On the Liar’s 1 to 10 Scale, I’d rank myself a four. A little better than most, mainly because I haven’t been a teller of malicious lies. Such as: “Do you know that Michelle had an abortion? She couldn’t have the baby because the father was black, so Fred would know it wasn’t his.” There’s a whiff of evil in these words, originating solely from the desire to harm someone. I’ve never had the stomach for such bottom-feeding. But many do engage in malicious lying, if only in a mild form.
          One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The commandment is not, significantly,“Thou shalt not lie,” though that wording is simpler and more sweeping. Is there a partial acceptance of this human foible? I’m guilty of the foible. I’m a commonplace, mainstream liar. I’ve lied to get what I want and to avoid what I don’t want. There are things I choose to keep hidden from others (the withholding of the truth is a form of lying). I concoct a false version of past events in which my role is more noble. I exaggerate, to put myself in a better light or to make an event more colorful, dramatic. I tell little white lies to make my life easier. Of the lies I tell, the worst are the gain/avoidance ones. But I’m not ruled by strong wants, and I’ve never been in a position where I needed to make high-stake lies. I’m not the head of a corporation, nor the leader of a nation, so I’ve had no missing funds or unjust invasions to lie about. Since I’ve never murdered anyone I haven’t had to lie about that.
          Though there’s another common sort of lie that deserves attention, different in nature from every one so far cited. These are the lies one tells to oneself. They can be innocuous: the pleasing belief that you’re better-looking or wittier than you really are. But self-deceit has its dark side; it can become self-delusion. I’ve known people who, in their mind, rearrange events – events in which they have acted badly, even done great harm – and transform themselves into innocent victims. Perhaps this is a form of self preservation: they want – they need – to escape guilt and remorse. It seems that this self-delusion is effective in achieving its end; I’m convinced that these people truly believe in their innocence. But if it is undetected by them, am I also one who has deluded myself? Am I more guilty in certain instances than I will ever own up to? I don’t think so – mainly because I have not, like the true self-delusionist, escaped feelings of guilt and remorse for my failings.
          A doubt regarding this came to me when I re-watched a movie after a 40 year span. I had been quite impressed by the diabolical twist at the end, and I had told the story, including the final frightening moment of revelation, to a number of people. When I saw the movie anew, I waited for that moment – and it never came. What I had described as happening did not happen. I went on the internet, to find out if the movie had been released in a different version, with a different ending; it had not. There was only one ending, and it wasn’t mine. I had altered the truth.
          I can give a plausible account for this incident. I have an imaginative nature; I found the movie interesting; I thought about it, perhaps before going to sleep, and at some point it occurred to me that it would be more effective, more startling, if the director had done – this. I developed “this” until it took on shape, substance. At some point over the years my alternate ending imposed itself into my memory of the film. It was there, as real as the truth.
          I hope this transformation (disturbingly similar to self-delusion) is limited only to movies, sporting events and other such matters – and not to the actualities of my life.
          Self evaluation is a good exercise, but only if you’re truthful. Maybe, if I work at it, I can get my liar’s rating down to a three. Although I must admit that at times in my life I've been a seven or an eight. I found myself in situations that seemed to demand that I lie – it was a matter of survival, if only emotional survival. I call these circumstantial lies. Circumstantial lies can even be “good” lies; there were those who lied to protect Jews from being found by the Nazis.

                                                                     Lawyers, Leeches, Leaders, Lovers
          People in the categories above commonly lie, or are perceived as doing so. Lawyers, the first in the queue, get enough abuse; I have no intention of piling on. They serve a legitimate purpose – even a constitutionally-based one. In their profession their sworn duty and legal obligation is to represent a client to the fullest. They understand an extremely intricate system of jurisprudence (complete with its own arcane language); their job is to get the most for their client from these intricacies. They can accomplish this without doing anything illegal; they can even avoid telling a lie. When a defense attorney says, “I will prove to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that my client is innocent of the charges against him,” he is merely stating his intent. Let’s suppose that he suspects (or knows) that his client is guilty. He will still maneuver in the shadowy realm created by the words, “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the guilty party – maybe a murderer – walks free, we feel outrage, and we direct it partly toward the lawyer. But he’s merely doing his job, doing it well. Some lawyers lie and commit ethical violations, but so do some dry cleaners, plumbers, doctors, cops.
          Leeches of the human variety are greedy not for blood but for money. I’m referring to the person whose actions raise him to the class of professional criminal. The armed robber immediately comes to mind, but I find crooks who are seemingly respectable to be of more interest. The man with the gun doesn’t lie when he orders the clerk to hand over the cash, but the white collar (or blue collar) thief approaches his victim with lies: the roofer tells the elderly lady that he’ll need money for the shingles before he can start work; the chiropractor, after performing various tests, prescribes a regime of herbal supplements; the televangelist asks for donations so that he can carry on the work of the Lord. But – of course! – the “roofer” will never come back; the chiropractor’s “tests” are hocus-pocus and the herbs he sells are placebos; the “man of God” will build his third earthly mansion. The variations of this type of thievery can fill a book; far more crooks use lies than guns. In corporate boardrooms lies are seen as an essential aspect of running a business.
          The elected leaders of our country don’t fare well in polls, which consistently show that the public has a low opinion of their honesty. On what is this perception based? On the facts! Our “public servants” too often wind up in prison. When first accused, they typically proclaim their innocence and intention to fight the false allegations (later they opt for a plea bargain). Being in the public spotlight, their crimes and lies are glaringly conspicuous. No doubt some politicians truly serve the public. What sullies them all are smear campaigns. In the city where I live, in a race for District Attorney, a candidate portrayed himself as supremely honest, God-loving, immensely qualified; in his TV ads he was shown walking in a pastoral setting with his loving wife and lovely children. Next on the screen came the opponent’s ad: the candidate is a taker of bribes, an associate of convicted felons; he's shown with a cigar in his grinning mouth. A regular Boss Tweed. Of course, this was a back and forth affair. These mud-slinging matches go on across our nation; neither candidate comes out looking good. Both could be corrupt, both could be liars; we don’t know. Then there are simple observations that lead to our belief that we are being lied to. Why are lobbyists swarming around state capitals and Washington, DC – are they handing out money and getting nothing in return, as politicians claim? Why does someone running for the job of insurance commissioner spend millions to get elected – is it simply to serve us? We see campaign promises fade away after the person is elected. In my state a gubernatorial candidate running on a platform of ethics reform was fined for ethics violations; a senator who proclaimed his solid family values was found to be a client of the “D.C. Madam.”
          As for our adulterous senator, he stonewalled the story until faced with incontrovertible evidence; then he held a press conference, his wife by his side, and apologized for his actions; his wife said nothing but looked grim. I’m certain that, in the privacy of their home, he first concealed his infidelity from her; then, when matters got hot, he lied (as he initially did to the public). It’s what you do when you’ve been unfaithful to a loved one. Lovers lie about sex. It’s so common that you, dear reader, have almost surely lied to a loved one (and been lied to). Some have told thousands of lies, from their teens to their Viagra years. But there’s no need to belabor what we all know. Morals are loosening (by the minute, it sometimes seems), yet in our culture there are still some emotions stubbornly hanging on. Maybe, in fifty years, the whole matter of faithfulness and exclusivity will be passé. You will be able to love someone and still be free to fulfill your wants with another to whom you are attracted. No trust will be destroyed, no pain will be inflicted, no marriages or relationships will be undermined, no guilt will be felt. No lies will be needed. In this golden future a husband may simply say, “Well, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself, honey. What’s for dinner?”

                                                                                      The Supernatural
          The Aztec religion, which explained the universe, sanctioned cannibalism, flaying, dismemberment. Sacrifices were done on a massive scale; on important occasions tens of thousands would have their chests cut open and their beating hearts torn out; this was done to appease malignant gods. To us the world of the Aztecs is dark and deluded; it reeks of death and brutality. Yet the people of a great civilization believed.
          As late as the 1940's the Japanese believed that their emperor, Hirohito, was a deity. It wasn’t until he told his people to end all resistance that the war ceased; the people obeyed their emperor/god. One of the world’s major religions – Hinduism – is inexplicable to the Western sensibility, with its pantheon of strange gods, such as Ganesha, depicted as an elephant riding on a mouse. And yet millions believe.
          All religions, in explaining the world, move into the supernatural – into the realm of the miraculous. As does the Christian religion. The Old Testament is filled with miraculous events; there’s a constant interplay between God and man. In the New Testament Jesus performed many miracles (in front of witnesses, sometimes huge crowds). Most were cures. Again and again are accounts of how he cured lepers, the blind, the mute, cripples, the possessed. He also taught, but before he spoke he would heal those brought before him. And who would not listen to his words after witnessing these miraculous cures? The awe and wonder of it! Who would not follow this Son of God? Indeed, the New Testament refers to crowds following Jesus. They follow him to the gates of Jerusalem, crying out “Hosanna!”
          It is from the accounts of the disciples that we have the words and actions of Jesus. But many biblical scholars are not at all clear as to the identity of the disciples; the time period in which they lived is a matter of speculation. Also in question are the exact words of the Bible, as originally written. These disciples relate events concerning the birth of Jesus which they, admittedly, did not witness: the Lord appearing to Joseph and telling him that what is conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit; angels bringing news to shepherds that a Savior has been born in Bethlehem.
          Throughout the story of Jesus, from his birth to his ascension, we are suffused in the supernatural. And this story comes solely from shadowy sources.
          When Jesus entered Jerusalem we also enter the domain of historical fact – for there were objective historians of that period; the Romans were diligent in documenting events of note. Yet no contemporaneous account of the last days of Jesus’s life can be found. If a crowd of believers (crying out, “Hosanna!”) had accompanied him, if large-scale unrest had occurred, it would have been recorded. The reason that historians of the time did not write of the matter of Jesus is because it was insignificant.
          Stories of the supernatural were – and are, universally – needed to elevate ethical and moral precepts to gospel. The Aztecs were given a belief system, based on the supernatural; we reject it, as we reject other alien belief systems. But thousands were fed with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Jesus walked on the sea. He changed water into wine, he raised Lazarus from the dead. And he performed those miraculous cures. Yet as he hung on the cross nothing supernatural occurred; Jesus was jeered at for just that: Save yourself; if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. He did not come down. He was not capable of doing so.
          I believe that the Bible, in its relating of supernatural events, lies. Was the use of lies a practical, calculated means to an end – to gain converts? We are told that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, but the flesh and blood Jesus may have considered himself only a teacher of men.
          For the words I’ve written some may condemn me to hell. Hell (and a form of it appears in many religions) is the most poisonous lie that man has conceived, for its purpose is to coerce people into obedience by instilling fear in them. The believer is given an eternity of bliss, the unbeliever writhes in eternal fire.
          Yet religions meet a deep-seated need. We humans want (that word again, for the last time) answers. There is a lack of answers provided by the natural world; death is a great and inexplicable silence. Religions tell us why we are here, what life is about, what happens to us when we die. So people take a leap of faith over a wall of logic and into the realm of the supernatural (though some don’t leap; they struggle up the wall, hand by bloody hand). They accept lies as the Truth. But these lies can't be condemned if the believers find themselves in a place of peace, if it makes them better human beings.

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