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Relationships • Conflicts

A Role for Lies

Few things are as painful as to be on the receiving end of lies. We expected a lover to be straightforward; we learn they were speaking to someone else behind our backs. We expected a friend to include us in all their plans; we hear that they threw a party they didn’t mention.

In our surprise and pain, we end up declaring that we ‘hate lying’ and take pride in our sincerity and relative purity of heart. But in so doing, we forget to explore a perhaps more interesting and more difficult question: why does lying even exist? 

Photo of wooden Pinocchio doll with large pointed nose.
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

To risk a generalisation, because people are continually trying to shield one another from pains that would devastate them if they saw things as they are. 

A three year old nephew asks their uncle if they love their drawing of a submarine; a child asks their parent if they have a favourite among their offspring; a partner asks their beloved if they ever think of other people while making love; an employee asks their boss if they have any thoughts of changing how the company is structured. 

We lie because if the truth were told, someone would be irrevocably hurt; someone would panic beyond measure, someone might not be able to go on. By all means we can blame the liars, but we should – along the way – share a little of the responsibility for the role played in lying by the responses of the lied-to. We cannot both demand that everyone should be entirely honest with us and respond as we do on the occasions when an unvarnished reality is shared. 

We live in a world of lies because we cannot collectively accept the levels of pessimism that we would need to absorb in order for lying not to be a prerequisite. We lie because everyone is so hopeful and so reliant on their hopes. It is both idealistic and absurd to insist that the truth always saves. If we could tell one another the whole truth at every turn without unleashing catastrophe, we would have to surrender most of the tender beliefs upon which we presently depend for our sanity and psychic survival. There would be very few lies in circulation if we could all – somehow – accept from the get-go that employees are fundamentally out to enhance their earning-power; that employers are only looking to maximise their revenue; that lovers simply want to upgrade to the kindest most attractive person they can have access to; that parents spontaneously gravitate to the child who best shares their own tastes and interests; that signs of ageing unavoidably work against feelings of sexual attraction; that people have extremely cynical thoughts even about those they call their friends; or that friends like to say they want to see us far more than they are actually ever motivated to do so.

These are repulsive ideas to have to accept. They violate our hopes of humankind and sully our beliefs in loyalty, unconditional love, purity of heart, effort, and an absence of financial or sexual motives. It isn’t lying that we should rightly hate so much; we should go further upstream and hate – and be profoundly sympathised with for hating – the abysmal realities upon which human nature seems built. We profess to be surprised and shocked by the lie; we should be devastated by the terms of existence.

What should replace an active, horrified complaint against this or that example of lying is a more all-enveloping and compassionate despair at the givens of society: lovers who are fated to betray us were someone better to come along, employees and employers who will discard us, friends who won’t be as tender as we need them to be. This is the outrage to which our present hatred of lying should more accurately be redirected.

We cannot expect ever to be entirely indifferent to lies. But with time, we might expect them to be headed our way a little more, to be a little less shocked by them when they arise and to accept with melancholy and equanimity the sombre context in which exchanges of lies take place. How unsurprising – in the end – that the friend sneaked off without telling us or that someone close to us was less than candid as to their motives. Along with hating lies, we may come to reserve some of the blame for the prior illusions about one another that make them so necessary and that we are all (understandably) far too fragile to do without.

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