Lying has long presented an attractive option for diverting attention from uncomfortable details of my life. When I was in elementary school, soon after my parents’ divorce, I told my class that I went to Bill Clinton’s inauguration (which I did) and shook his hand as he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue (which I didn’t). The closest I got to embracing Bill was hugging a lamppost, surrounded by thousands of pent-up Democrats a half-mile from the grandstand. Yet, when I regaled my classmates back home, I described how the president and I didn’t just brush palms in a sea of people; we made eye contact and he walked toward me with purposefulness — a chosen one recognizing another.
Later, as my friends were raptured, one by one, into puberty and I was temporarily left behind, there was “Sara” in “Massachusetts” who I had definitely made out with several times during an unspecified summer trip. In high school, I let adults know that I had recently seen and loved Kubrick’s last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The film disturbed me and seemed like wasted nudity.
As an adult, I’ve become partial to being honest though the embarrassment with my circumstances that once triggered my whoppers is not entirely resolved. The particulars of the embarrassments are different; I no longer need to pad my kissing résumé. Yet the sentiment is similar: at certain moments in front of others, I feel that my life must be more. I must be more.
This explains why, a several months ago, standing in the backyard of a small house for sale in Westchester, I nodded impassively as a general contractor said that renovations would likely cost between $100,000-$150,000. Our arms were crossed and as he talked about joists, battens, and bridging, I played the role of a) someone who knows what a “batten” is, and b) someone who might be comfortable spending $150,000 on a house with no driveway in a town I had visited only once before. “Hmm” I said, sounding intrigued. I repeated the cost casually, as if to say, “That’s all?” Meanwhile, my wife waited down the hill for the bullshit storm to subside.
I didn’t outright lie to the contractor, but I gave the impression that I had more money and more manly knowledge than I possess. I won’t defend lying from a moral perspective, but I would like to widen the lens to look beyond our judgments about the liar. Our fury at the ethical transgression prevents us from seeing something deeper about the person telling the lie. Lying reveals the unseen currents in one’s life — the ambitions and desires — which aren’t visible with only a still shot of job title, address, and what we’ve done thus far. To the misrepresenter, the details of their circumstances do not define them or, at least, they don’t want them to.
We are taught to hate the liar. My daughter, in first grade, had a friend who fabricated bareback horse-riding lessons (in Brooklyn!), perfect grades, and an older sister who took her out for movies and ice cream. My daughter was distressed by her own inadequate (in comparison) life. So, at first, I leveled my contempt and judgment toward the deceitful girl. Yet I could also sense how, on the other side of repugnance for this girl’s lies, is an appreciation of how badly she wants to have these wonderful things: to be the kind of girl who can go bareback horse riding and be taken out by an older, cool sister rather than having two stressed-out working parents and two younger siblings in a cramped apartment. Lying about a better life is not the same as having it.
Now, of course, the less you care about other people’s feelings or the less you value honesty, the easier it is to lie. Even Trump, however, and his silly but persistent fabrications about the size of his inauguration (not to mention the size of his wealth, his hands, his IQ…) demonstrate his painful desire to be respected, taken seriously, even adulated. There has been plenty said about the ethical ramifications of lying and I don’t need to address that here. Lying is not great. Obvs.
Yet, there is lying in the world. As a parent, I see my own children practice the dark art, just as I once employed a dizzying array of lies at my parents. And if you scratch the surface just a bit, I imagine you’ll find examples of misrepresentation in your own life — times in which unease around certain details or events caused a “rebranding” of what happened. If you suspend the moral judgment, for a moment, you can learn a lot from lying.
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As I got older, my misrepresentations focused on what I was currently ashamed of: my income. Years of watching friends move up the financial ladder and my wife’s frustration about our thin margins had led to a profound discomfort with even saying my actual income aloud. As if saying it were a capital offense. I wouldn’t outright lie about the figure but I would rush in with so much context, “I’m a part-time stay-at-home dad; I only work 2 to 3 days a week, sometimes less during the summer; I do the shopping and cooking, etc.” It’s a wonder I even make any money at all!
There is a security system that protects the things I’m ashamed of from being found out by others. The system uses different defense strategies: omission, changes of conversation and, as a last resort, misrepresentation. We all have our security systems — sucking in your gut is a defense, as is maintaining a relentless positivity about your life. We are packaging ourselves. The wholesome, dippy advice would have you never misrepresent and just become completely accepting of your own situation. Surely there is wisdom in this, but there’s also wisdom in our lying.
After all, should everything we’re embarrassed of be flung into the public light? From a certain, un-thoughtful perspective, this might seem like the natural conclusion if we have nothing to hide. But put another way, does our weight belong on our name tag? Is a Speedo bathing suit more truthful than loose-fitting board shorts? Do all the excruciatingly uncomfortable details need to be aired? Would that be healthy?
Of course not. Call me dishonest but I wouldn’t want my private journal published on Medium, or to walk around in a belly shirt all day. It seems ignorant to pretend that we would be okay with our insides being out. We are a complex mix of pride, sensitivity, and aspiration. The details and circumstances of our lives are only part of the picture and what misrepresentations illuminate are where we want to go or where we wish we were. As the Wilco song goes, “All my lies are always wishes…”
For me, most of my misrepresentations could be made honest by simply inserting the words, “I wish.” I wish I could easily spend 1/10 of a million dollars on renovating a house. I wish that my belly looked more like a model on the cover of Men’s Journal magazine rather than Cheese Monthly.
It’s not hard to see how our country, instead of admitting what it wishes were true, continues to tell it like it ain’t. Some of America’s collective lies are a mix of aspiration and denial: all children have an equal chance of success; the criminal justice system is blind to bias; and the Civil Rights Act ended institutionalized racism.
What lying can keep alive — keep on life support — is our shame. Lying protects the parts we are most embarrassed of. To just judge lying and be done with it (especially in ourselves) is to miss out on a healing opportunity. When misrepresentations occur, it’s useful to look in and ask: what is the frustrated ambition? What do I feel a need to be happening that isn’t?
For me, I developed a nerve condition in my mid-20s that meant I couldn’t work, couldn’t pick up a book or pen for several years without great pain. I mostly recovered but still can’t type or use a touchscreen because of lingering pain in my hands and arms. To quickly condemn my attempts to be a different Dan in the backyard with that contractor — when I tried to occupy the path I might’ve taken if I never got sick — seems unkind and puritanical. It’s intoxicating to briefly mingle with the selves that we long to be.
Everyone feels the pain that they are not quite the person they would like to be. Sometimes that pain leaks out in not-quite truths as it did for me in the backyard. Lying doesn’t get us any closer to where we want to be, but neither does the hammer of judgment.