Lying Liars and the Lies They Tell

Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying!

William Shakespeare – King Henry IV

Everyone lies. You read that all over the place. Occasionally we might assert that we don’t but if you include all the varieties of lies from “little white lies” to “social lubrication”, it’s hard to not just accept as a given that we all lie on occasion.

I saw a bit of a study that was testing whether small children, let’s say 4 or 5, could be left with a cake and told “don’t touch it” and then watch (because children haven’t figured out about two-way mirrors. Most of the kids tried the cake, usually just licking the frosting. When asked, all of them lied about it. Some were, to my eyes, astonishingly good at it. Others, less so.

I recall another article that made the case that we start lying as infants. Babies cry because they’re hungry or uncomfortable or tired. Certain cries get certain reactions. Sometimes they get food, sometimes they get held and sometimes they get put down for a nap. The first two are far more interesting, the latter more necessary. They learn to start manipulating their parents very quickly and cry to get the reaction they want – whether it’s to be held or to be fed.

The University of Massachusetts did a study that found that when two strangers spoke with each other for the first time, without consciously intending to, they told an average of almost 3 lies in a 10-minute conversation.

So, yeah, we lie. All of us.

Lying was one of the biggest sins for my dad when I was growing up. I recall a time when I stood next to a neighborhood kid in his backyard while he shot a BB gun at the window of a house. He thought the house was unoccupied. Much to our surprise, it was not and someone quickly looked out the window and spotted us both.

Word got back and when questioned, I lied about my involvement, though I had not pulled the trigger. In the end, I got a spanking – yes, Virginia, this was a thing still when I was a kid, though this would be the last spanking I got at, probably, 10 years old. I got the spanking not for being there. I got the spanking for lying about it. To this day, I don’t know what my punishment would have been if I’d looked him in the eye and fessed up for standing next to the guy doing the dumb thing. But, what I got in trouble for was the lying. My butt hurt because of the lying.

Hell, we teach our kids to lie. Most of us have told our kids to be polite and say thank you Aunt Nancy after they got a gift that made clear Aunt Nancy knew nothing about them and wasn’t really trying all that hard. Granted, that’s in the realm of the “social lubricant” kind of lying, but a lie is a lie, right?

Teen-agers (and I certainly include myself when I was one) experiment with lying as they try to figure out who they’re going to be and how they’re going to deal with things in their lives. Maybe it’s lying staying at Joe’s house while Joe claims to stay at your house so you can go to a party, it’s all part of figuring out how you can manipulate circumstances to attain the outcome you wish.

I recall lying to my dad about whether I’d done my chores (what a silly thing to lie about!) and there was almost a palpable sensation of calculation of risk and reward as I weighed my reaction. What was I risking if I got caught? What was my upside if I got away with it? Could I get away with it?

My wife works in law enforcement. She has a very, very difficult job for which she’s not compensated nearly well enough and I’m thankful she’s doing it and not me every, single day.

One of the characteristics of her job is that probably 90% of the people she deals with on a daily basis are lying to her actively and she knows it. Sometimes she can call them on it if she has information to support it but often she just has to let it go. I don’t know whether she would agree with this statement, but I believe that if everyone in your workday lies to you, it predisposes you to the belief that everyone is lying to you always. Now, granted, with our teenagers, that may be true a good chunk of the time, but we all hope that they’re going to grow out of that nonsense and end up adults who only lie the “normal” amount.

I’m fortunate in my job that most of the time I don’t have to care if someone is lying to me. I get to choose to accept most of what is said to me at face value and go on about my business.
As I said, I don’t envy my wife her job. It’s a hard one. It affects how she looks at the world. How could it not?

It may be that lying is a tool, like communication itself, that allows us to live cheek and jowl with seven billion other individuals whose goals, needs and wants may differ or be in conflict with our own. It may be that lying has kept groups or friends or families together when the truth would have fractured them. All of that may well be true.

But, there’s a cost to lying. You have to hold the lie, remember the lie, sustain the lie. It has to live on in a little parallel pocket dimension where that version of reality has to persist in case you ever have to refer to it again in the future. You have keep all those little parallel pocket dimensions straight and you have to keep them alive because you never know when you might be asked about them again. The size of the lie becomes the weight that you have carry. More lies mean more weight and that burden piles up. Eventually, we get hurt because we get caught in one of our lies and that little pocket reality explodes and the consequences follow.

For some, those pocket realities just grow and grow until they become innumerable. Some of those people gauge their success by the number of lies they can keep active and up in the air without the worlds colliding and them suffering the consequences. I suspect we’ve all done this at times in our life with varying degrees of success.

I think it behooves us as we grow and grow up to try and manage the number and size of those pocket realities. Keep them small in size and keep them small in number. No one’s perfect, but try and manage your lies so that when they do cause damage, because they will cause damage, the result is something you can recover from and live with.

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