One of the first values we teach children is honesty, so why do adults lies so often? Why are lies such a common component of our daily lives and conversations? At one time or another we’ve all been dishonest, but lying is still something we’re quick to condemn others for. Look at how happily the media indicted and ridiculed one of their own for a lie he told. I’m not excusing his dishonesty, but his punishment seemed hypocritical. We’re all imperfect. We have all distorted the truth. It’s a vice we all share, so why do we act so surprised or judgmental when others do it?
True, not all lies are created equal. They come in different sizes and are told for different reasons. Some lies are nefarious and giant. They’re designed to hide big crimes. They’re told to obfuscate large sins. They cover infidelity, inequality, and brutality. They start wars, suppress freedoms, and spread hate like an airborne disease.
The lies most of us tell, however, come in smaller, daily doses. How often do you tell someone you can’t when what you really mean is you don’t want to?
Sometimes we lie because we prefer to do what’s easy rather than what is right. If telling the truth is climbing a steep flight of stairs, lying is gliding down a slide. For some of us, lying becomes like gravity. It’s a force at work in our lives, and we mostly respond to it without thinking.
Some of us lie to fit in. We trim our morals down to a more comfortable and portable size. We take the heat out of our convictions so they’ll be more palatable. We mince our words so others will find them easier to swallow.
Honesty can be expensive. It can cost us someone’s favor or friendship. It may force us to surrender an illusion we’ve held—of our world, someone else, or of our self.
Oftentimes we lie out of fear. We’re frightened the truth will harm someone we care about. We tell ourselves we’re lying to protect them—that the lie is harmless, but the truth would hurt. We don’t want them to suffer, so we lie and call it love. But lies build a faulty foundation, and dishonesty smothers genuine affection.
If I’m not afraid of honesty hurting you, then I fear it will hurt me. I worry that you’ll kill the messenger or see me as an adversary.
We’re afraid of what others will think of us if we’re completely honest. We don’t want to sound stupid, so we pretend to understand things we don’t. (One of the hardest truths for me to utter is, “I don’t know.”) We don’t want to look weak, so we mask our feelings. We lie to minimize our flaws or embellish our strengths. We lie to seem richer, busier, happier, or more important.
Lying is often an act of self-preservation. Sometimes we are trying to preserve the image of ourselves we want others to see. Sometimes we wish our lies were the truth—like offering congratulations while feeling apathy or envy. We hope that by uttering the lie we’ll transform it into reality.
I’d be lying if I said I’m always honest. I want to be a truthful person, but sometimes I find myself lying like a reflex—even when the stakes are very small. I know I’ll never be perfectly honest, but hopefully I can at least keep moving in that direction. Step one is to learn my lying habits and then address them. Who am I trying to impress? What am I trying to prove? Am I acting like someone I’m not or attempting to avoid a punishment or rebuke?
From a very young age we’re told lying is wrong. And then these white lies creep into our world. They’re disguised as being polite or kind. That was delicious! I’d love to help you move! You don’t look fat in that dress (as if fat can’t be beautiful). I wish I could make it, but I’m busy that day. Yes, you do have the world’s cutest baby. I’m sorry. I don’t mind. I’m not worried. I’m not mad. I can’t eat this whole dessert on my own. You’re not bothering me. I’m comfortable.
Why do we call them white lies? Are they pure or innocent? Are they soft like cotton or delicate like snow? Are they completely innocuous?
White lies are still betrayals. Even small lies can do harm. And perhaps, and worse of all, small lies make bigger lies necessary—or at least possible.
The truth is often hard, but it doesn’t have to be cruel. Honesty can be gentle just as lies can wound. Truth delivered in love might still hurt or sting, but I find it’s those truths that have been sharpened by lies that are the most cutting.