We all lie.
I can’t imagine someone who has never told a lie. Someone who has been completely honest his whole life.
I consider myself an honest person. But completely honest?
I have told a friend her haircut was just fine. (when it wasn’t)
I have told a boss I was sick. (when I wasn’t)
I have told my mother her gift was just what I wanted (when it wasn’t)
I have told a subordinate I was satisfied with her work (when I wasn’t)
Hell, I even told my dog the chicken was all gone… when… well, you get the picture.
Recent events have reminded me of two lies from my past – not lies that I told but lies that were told to me.
1) When I was in college, a boy sent me a whole series of letters…one every day… that were just hilarious. (If this sounds familiar… see “Kissing Frogs”). How could I not love a boy with such imagination, playfulness, writing skills, postage stamps…etc.? He was the most creative person I had ever met! And then in my Lit class that Fall, I found that he had not exactly written those letters. He had just typed them. Kurt Vonnegut had written them.
2) Many years ago, a then-close friend told me a sad family secret. She cried as she told me about her sister who had died. her sister had been born with severe cognitive impairment as well as physical disabilities. They were both very young children, but my friend said she remembered her sister – her only sister – and to this day she felt incomplete without her. And years later, I saw some photos on Facebook of this woman and her sister – who had the same name as the one whose death supposedly haunted her. Quite healthy. A banking executive.
So what kind of lies were these? What purpose did they serve?
Mark Twain said (and gave credit to Benjamin Disraeli) that there three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. And I get that last one – you can easily manipulate data to prove dubious points.
As far as lies and damn lies, I see this too.
Because there are lies you tell to protect someone. Often that someone is yourself. When I told my boss I was sick, I was protecting myself. And when I told my subordinate her work was okay, I was protecting her.
Then there are lies that are extensions of the Protection Lie. They go further than protecting someone – they are intended to support, please, or enrich someone. Telling my mother I loved her gift was one of these lies. And reassuring my girlfriend that her goofy haircut was okay was too. Some people call these white lies. I prefer to call them Comfort Cards.
We send Comfort Cards to ourselves too. We tell ourselves that we didn’t get the promotion because we are indispensable in the job we currently have. And we tell ourselves that our own awful haircut makes us look unique and on trend.
There’s nothing wrong with Comfort Cards.
Lying out of kindness is okay in my book. As long as the lie doesn’t hurt anyone.
When my boyfriend sent me those letters, I suppose they didn’t carry much hurt. But still, there was some. I think he sent me those lies as Comfort Cards to himself, to seem cleverer than he was. And to be cleverer than me. And that was the hurt. That I felt a little like a fool.
Perhaps he thought I would recognize the letters as Vonnegut’s work, and was just sharing the joke… but I doubt it. For then, why do it? Why type them all out and take the trouble to send one at a time. I suppose I could be flattered that he would want to impress me so badly that he would cheat.
But I don’t think so. Because I also remember sitting around a table with several other people and hearing him tell them that his middle name was Harrison, when I had seen his driver’s license and his middle name was Howard. Later, when we were alone, I asked him why he did that and he said, “Just because I knew they would believe it.” He lied then to feel superior to those people. And that’s how I knew he lied to feel superior to me.
And my friend who lied about her sister? Why did she do that? Finding out these many years later has left me hurt and puzzled.
Was this her Comfort Card to herself? I can only surmise that she lied so that I would feel sorry for her. She wanted me to return her Comfort Card with one of my own. To gain sympathy.
And this hurts. That she would be so desperate for comfort that she was willing to “kill off” her sister to elicit some compassion. Hurt that she could not simply say, “I’m feeling low right now and I could use some tenderness.” And especially hurt to consider the possibility that she thought I was not capable of compassion unless she invented some terrible tragedy.
Was that who I was then? Someone who had no empathy for the small pain of just getting through another day?
If so, I am glad I am no longer that cold woman.
I feel for all the little – and large – sorrows.
But there are other lies for which I have no tolerance. Damn Lies. Which seem to be accumulating and accelerating in today’s world.
Lies whose intent is selfishness, manipulation, or even worse.
Mean lies do not just hurt my feelings. Mean lies hurt the world.
Someone asked recently how I could be hurt by lies that do not affect me personally.
How do those lies not affect me?
How am I not hurt?