The familiar term “white lies” dates from the 18th century and implies a benign or even charitable falsehood, spoken to smooth social interactions and avoid unnecessary pain or embarrassment. And, of course, we all do it . . . That is not an indictment, it is just a fact.
But, in the cosmic scheme of things, even the whitest of lies puts our toes on a slippery slope.
A lie is an intentional falsehood. Things can be untrue but not be lies. If the person who spoke the untruth honestly believes what he or she said, he or she is not lying but simply being mistaken. Lying implies an intent to deceive.
If you are the person to whom the lie is told, it creates obvious problems. You may find yourself innocently perpetuating the lie—spreading a falsehood—and thus be made to look naïve or foolish when the truth comes out—as it inevitably will. Or, you may make important decisions based on these lies, and thus find yourself harmed by the other person’s deceit. These are not new or novel insights. This is Life 101. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
But lies also damage the liar, and that is the burden of this blog. Here are five ways that lying hurts the liar . . .
1. Liars don’t trust other people because, they reason (not unreasonably), “If I am lying to them, they are probably lying to me.” When dishonesty becomes the default, it poisons the well for everyone, the liar included. A discordant note of distrust is woven into every conversation—doubts linger and hang in the air, creating a sense of constant dis-ease.
2. Liars seem to operate on the basic assumption that the world is not a safe place and that no one is trustworthy to meet their needs. Liars implicitly assume that people cannot be trusted with the truth or, if given the truth, they will use it against them. Reality (truth) is too painful or unfriendly and, therefore, the liar feels the need to create their own reality—a fantasy world that operates according to their own peculiar laws of social physics. To lie is to keep a secret—and, as the saying goes, “We are as sick as our secrets.”
3. The corollary to #2 is that liars inevitably feel alone. They have created a world in which they alone know the rules and they alone know “the truth.” That is a lonely place to be. It is an odd alloy of insecurity and egotism: “I’m afraid of the ‘real’ world but I’m also able to outsmart it.” It’s lonely at the top . . . and at the bottom . . . of your own little world.
4. Perhaps most tragic, liars can never be sure they are loved. How can they trust love when no one really knows the real them? “Of course you say you love me, but that’s because you don’t know the real me.” We see this all the time in our practice with couples. People who have been married for years have never really trusted their partner’s love for them because they had been lying about who they were the whole time. To lie to those closest to us is to deny ourselves real, genuine love.
5. Even the most skillful liar eventually gets exposed. Like all living things, Truth finds a way to get to the light. It was Jesus who said, “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed and nothing concealed that will not be known and illuminated. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:2,3) In the end, lying is trading long-term integrity, joy, and love for a tenuous, momentary reprieve from discomfort. Not a good trade.
So, what’s a person to do when confronted with a person who lies? While in rare cases, habitual liars suffer from a genuine psychological disorder, most often liars operate out of a profound sense of loneliness and fear, creating an illusion of power and invulnerability behind a fortress of deceit. If we on the “outside” of that world can see over the parapet—or through a crack in the wall—we will often find an insecure, scared (and often scarred) child who has learned not to trust the world or other people to meet his or her needs.
In response, we need to carefully and lovingly walk that fine line between demonstrating that (a) we don’t intend to be fooled by their lies yet, at the same time, (b) we also don’t intend to dismiss or abandon them. We must model the reality that truth-telling is life-giving.
When a habitual liar DOES tell the truth—even if it’s an uncomfortable or unwelcome truth—we must find a way to affirm and reward him or her. That doesn’t mean rewarding something bad that person has done, but reward the act of truth-telling. Praise the honesty, even if you feel the need to punish some offense.
Also, practice and model honesty in your own life. The ancient Psalmist asked the question “Who may dwell [with God]?” One answer: “He who keeps his word, even when it hurts.” (Psalm 15:4) And James, Jesus earthly brother, wrote these startling words: “Above all else . . . let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.” In other words, wrote James, if you hear and believe nothing else, be a person of your word.
Finally, Jesus said that it’s the Truth that sets us free. (John 8:32) Lying may get us off the hook for a moment, but real freedom is found in being people of the Truth.