One day my grandpa Doral was eating oatmeal for breakfast. He’d just finished his bowl, when my grandma Doris said to him, “There’s a little more oatmeal left in the pan Doral. You can have the rest of it.” Doral and Doris had been eating oatmeal for breakfast for 20 years. But this morning was different…Doral said something that shocked my grandma: “Uh, you can have it Doris. The truth is, I don’t really like oatmeal. I just eat it because you like it and I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Then it was my grandma’s turn to surprise my grandpa: “Well I don’t like oatmeal either.” She responded. “I’ve been making it all this time because I thought you liked it.”
This oatmeal story captures so well the love that my grandparents had for not only each other, but also for their 5 children and 29 grandchildren. For 20 years they each sacrificed for the other, and that’s the type of love and sacrifice that leads to a successful 58 year marriage. I don’t know of a single couple who had a better marriage than my grandparents had. But there’s another lesson to be learned from the oatmeal story, and it has to do with the negative consequences of misunderstanding reality. When we don’t know the truth, when we have incorrect beliefs about reality, we suffer. In the case of the oatmeal, the consequences were minor. But other incorrect beliefs about reality lead to infinitely more harm. And I can’t think of anything that keeps us from arriving at the truth, and causes more harm, than lying does.
We all want to be happy, yet we often behave in ways that make us unhappy. And perhaps one of the surest paths to unhappiness is through lying. If we could poll every person in the world, and ask them if lying is bad, the overwhelming majority of people would presumably say yes, It’s bad to lie. In fact, “thou shalt not lie” is one of the most famous teachings from one of the most famous books of all time. But sadly, people lie all the time. For example, a study in the top psychology journal found that college students lied in 1/3 of their social interactions. Even spouses admitted that 10% of their communication with each other was deceptive.
But what exactly constitutes a lie? According to Google, it’s a false statement made with a deliberate intent to deceive. But another way to think about lying is that it’s intentionally misleading others when they expect the truth. If we agree that it’s bad to intentionally mislead others, the question becomes, why do we do it? Why do we lie? Well, there are lots of reasons we lie. We lie to avoid the consequences of bad behavior, or to gain rewards that we don’t deserve. We also lie out of convenience, for example lying to avoid conflict or making promises that we don’t intend to keep. We also lie to avoid hurting people. And maybe the most common reason we lie is to get psychological benefits such as self-esteem, respect, or affection.
To be sure, not all motives for lying are necessarily bad. But I am convinced, thanks in large part to the book I read called Lying, written by Sam Harris, that lying, even in very small matters, needlessly causes harm and damages relationships.
But why? What exactly is wrong with lying. Why does it matter? Especially in cases when we think we are lying to help other people. Every time we lie, we deny people a view of reality. we create a block, or a rift in reality so to speak, and we prohibit them from seeing the world as it is. Take the example of a lie intended to benefit another person. For example your partner asks you some variation of the question, “Do I look overweight in this dress?”
If the truth is that the dress really doesn’t do them any favors, and we lie in that moment, we’ve denied them access to reality. We’ve missed an opportunity to help them find an outfit that makes them look better. Or missed an opportunity to help them be more physically healthy. Of course I’m not suggesting that we should ever be mean or tactless. And if the purpose of the question is to assess whether we love them or not, then we should simultaneously assure them of the love that we have for them. But here’s the kicker. In the words of Sam Harris, “When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives—about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose. If we are convinced that a friend has taken a wrong turn in life, it is no sign of friendship to simply smile and wave them onward.”
Every time we lie, or allow others to misunderstand reality, we also set them up for future disappointment. Several years ago my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The doctor asked my father if he wanted to try a relatively new treatment, and my father agreed. A few weeks later my father went to the doctor and my brother and I went with him. We learned that the treatment was working…the cancer had stopped growing.
“It’s a miracle” my father said. The doctor was very happy and kept emphasizing the words that the cancer was not actively growing. All the while my brother and I were exchanging looks. We knew that “not actively growing” was not the same thing as “cured.” But every time my father pressed the doctor on the issue of whether he had been cured, the doctor danced around the issue. My father left that appointment thinking that he was in recovery. But it just wasn’t the case.
Several months later, when the cancer started actively growing again, my father was all the more devastated. And he died just a few short months later. When we misunderstand reality, we are essentially guaranteeing ourselves future disappointments.
Every time we lie, we also miss an opportunity to surface real problems, such as abuse or addiction. We also miss out on opportunities for personal growth. Sam Harris tells of the time when he was named valedictorian but refused to give the speech, saying it should go to someone more deserving who had been at the school longer. But in reality, Sam was just terrified of public speaking. Because Sam didn’t confront the truth in that moment, he missed out on countless opportunities, that could have easily been his had he simply confronted reality sooner.
Every time we lie we also set ourselves up to lie more. We have to remember which lies we’ve told to which people. And decide whether and how new lies will fit in with the old lies. Plus, when we lie to others, research suggests that we become less trusting of the people we lie to. And if we catch someone lying, or see a friend or family member lie to someone else, we learn something unpleasant about them: that they will lie to get what they want.
But what about the most extreme examples—lying in self defense—when a solider knocks on your door asking if you are illegally hiding a refugee? Well, first of all, maybe this is the moment that the truth is most needed. If we don’t stand up for the truth in that moment, how many other people will suffer? Alternatively, maybe we could get away with simply saying, “I’m not going to answer that question, and if you come a step closer, I’ll blow your brains out.” But it may be the case that some people are simply unreachable via the truth, that there is no hope for a real relationship, or meaningful, truthful interaction, and at that point, maybe it would be okay to lie. But fortunately, I think most of us will never be in that situation.
In summary, the negative consequences the stem from lying are virtually endless. And ultimately we will be remembered for the lies that we tell, because time reveals truth. But fortunately, the benefits of telling the truth are also virtually endless.
When we tell the truth, we don’t have to remember our lies, we are more trusting of other people we help other people have a more accurate perception of reality, people can believe us, our praise and encouragement will actually be meaningful. And finally, when we tell the truth, we won’t have to eat oatmeal for 20 years if we don’t like it. Please don’t lie kids. Tell the truth.
It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.
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