Saturday, April 23, 2011
lots of truth, some lies
If I've talked to you in the last 40 days there's a really good chance I told you the truth.
My wife found herself belly laughing at a goofy commercial a while back. She laughed so hard I came in the room to see if she was in need of professional help. She grabbed the remote and continued laughing as she backed the TV up so I could see it. It was the one where there's grainy footage of Abe Lincoln and his wife preparing to go out. She is of a portly description and she asks "Honest Abe" if her dress makes her backside look large. Abe is immediately at a loss for words and his search for any sort of less-hurtful answer sends Mrs. Lincoln away in a huff. As commercials go, it was a funny one.
For the season of Lent this year I gave up lying.
I suppose the disclaimers should begin here. I'm not talking about Radical Honesty. A.J. Jacobs tried Radical Honesty for a period of time while doing research for one of his writing projects and I may have written about it here in the past. Radical Honesty called for him to be nothing but honest all the time. Not only was he forced to answer questions honestly, but he also had to offer up truth whenever and wherever he found it. He is still married (as far as I know) and you can imagine his wife is a saint for overlooking some of his comments. In his experiment Radical Honesty proved to be very problematic and this was not something I was interested in. I believe that we should be honest, but I also believe that we should use the rational thought we were given and this rational thought often tells us when to keep our mouths shut.
I'm also not talking about sarcasm or jokes. Apparently you can't have sarcasm and jokes without some element of deception and as one of my students put it so eloquently, without sarcasm and jokes I really can't be me.
I can hear some of you saying, "Wow, this guy must have a real problem with lying." Thirty nine and a half days ago I would have told you that I don't have a problem at all being honest. In fact, since I still have a few hours left before lying is OK again, I must tell you that I thought this would not be a huge challenge for me at all. It's not like I go around making up things and misleading people for fun every day. What I discovered is that I have the same problem with lying that everyone else does. That problem is that we do lie every day in small, often unobserved ways.
I'm talking about social lies. The tiny lies that are just a part of polite conversation. Like when you're talking with someone and they present some odd or awful idea and you smile and nod in agreement. Maybe you even say, "yeah" or "I understand" when you really just want them to shut up so you can escape. And then they say, "It was nice talking to you" and you respond with..........the truth? Not a chance. You say, "Nice talking to you too."
It's not that you want to hurt them or mislead them. It's just easier to be nice and lie. No harm, no foul, right? And you wonder why I prefer the life of the hermit.
If you're confused by this completely backwards approach to Lent, let me repeat something I've written before. I know this is not how it works. I'm a recovering Southern Baptist and my churches never really observed or mentioned the season of Lent. Giving up things is just not what we like to do and I get that. Someone would eventually suggest giving up fried chicken or covered dish lunches and we'd have to secede and create a whole new denomination and no one wants that. When I entertained the idea of giving something up for Lent I was smart enough to do the research and figure out how the sacrifice went along with the spirit of the weeks leading up to Easter. My thinking took a turn though, and I saw this as an opportunity to do more than simply give up a good thing for a season. My goal shifted toward working to give up something that should remain given up after Easter Sunday passes. As far as my memory serves right now, I've given up cursing, carbonated drinks and negative comments toward people in previous years. While I can't say that any of those things are still "given up", I can say that I've seriously decreased the amount of presence most of them have in my life (darn you Throwback Mountain Dew).
So, on day one, I got up and went about my business and I caught myself almost lying before lunch. Twice.
A few days later I found myself talking to a person about my artwork. He asked a direct and insightful question about one of my sculptures and I forced myself to explain the answer in all of its personal glory. I still hate that he had to listen to all that.
There were an alarming number of big questions I had to answer during this time. My wife and I had to make some important decisions and the fact that I needed to be completely honest may have helped some of those decisions go better than average.
I've lost count of all the art and social events I had to attend during this challenge. For the most part I think I was pleasant but there was one event where I was surprised by a few greetings and I may have been social instead of honest. I'm not proud of this. Don't worry, if you're reading this, it wasn't about you.
Keep in mind that these Lent thoughts about honesty were running through my head during all these events and during all those conversations. I found myself trying to stay a sentence or two ahead so that I could anticipate questions or comments and be prepared to respond appropriately. I also used the time to observe people who seem to have already conquered these problems. I watched one guy in particular and noted his elongated pauses in conversation before he will commit to agree or disagree with someone. I watched a few people practice the most wise response - silence. I've long thought that silence was the enemy of conversations and socializing but now I see the wisdom of silence.
It was this discovery of silence as an acceptable response that freed me up to begin telling people around me that I was trying not to lie. For a while I kept quiet because I know my friends and my wife well enough to know that they would do their best to make this difficult for me. I could just see them using this as a tool for their own personal entertainment. The really strange thing was that when I told them what I was doing they seemed to go out of their way to not ask me anything. A couple of times my wife asked me something and I replied with a smile "ask me again on Easter". I suppose it's nice to have the truth available to us when we need it, but maybe we don't always want it. Or maybe sometimes we need something beyond the truth.
It would be great to say that I feel enlightened by this experience and that I will never lie again. It would also be a lie. If anything I feel perplexed and interested in learning more about the human relationship with the idea of truth. Maybe I'll look into that more after I completely figure out gravity, dinosaurs and quantum physics. While we all wait on that, I'll keep trying to be honest. But make no mistake, I know exactly what to say when my wife asks me questions about her dress.