COMMENTARY: The seductive power of little lies

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is the publisher of Religion News Service and author of”Turn Toward the Wind.”)

(RNS)-When I asked the taxi driver for a receipt yesterday, he handed me a blank slip.”Could you fill it out?”I asked.”Most people like to fill in their own amount,”he said, shrugging.”They pick up a few extra bucks that way.” Padding expense accounts is nothing new. But it seems to be more widespread than ever. And truth-bending in general seems to be on the upswing.

An NBC News poll released this week revealed that 74 percent of Americans think people are”less honest”than they used to be. When interviewing folks on camera to support the results, a number of them were willing to admit to lying regularly.”Sure I lie,”said one woman.”Everyone does.” Lies come in all shapes and sizes. From the”I’m sorry, I’m busy”lie to the major corporate cover-up, lies are generally told to make us look better or to help us avoid a difficult situation.

We’re members of a competitive culture, anxious to look not just good, but best. Resume inflation is so rampant that a friend of mine who is looking for a job was advised to”plump up”her experience by a placement firm.

And lying is also so much easier than dealing with uncomfortable situations.

Janet Cooke, the former Washington Post reporter who won and then lost a Pulitzer Prize after it was discovered that she had fabricated the story, offers a chilling portrayal of her own progressive departures from truth.

She started to lie as a child, she acknowledged in an interview in GQ magazine, because it was easier to lie than to deal with her controlling father.”It was like, do you unleash the wrath of Dad’s temper, or do you tell something that is not exactly true and be done with it?” The problem with lies of convenience is that they can grow into lies of substance. Like the liar on Saturday Night Live who often started with a semi-plausible statement and then gained momentum (“Yeah, that’s it,”he’d tell himself as his embroidery of the truth became increasingly ornate), we can become proud of ourselves for dealing with difficulties so economically.

Buoyed by his successes, the SNL liar would move on to bragging about his wife, Morgan Fairchild.”Yeah, that’s it,”he’d say again, but no one was buying. He’d spun himself right over the edge of possibility.

We all know how easily a half-truth can require the cover story of a full-blown lie. We can choose to go down that road or stop in our tracks. And at that point, we define our own view of reality or let it be defined for us.

The”I’m busy”needs another explanation when we’re spotted, and that’s when we either come clean or up the ante. The more we steamroll the truth, the easier it becomes, until we are no longer in control of the false reality we’ve created.

Cooke sees this progression in her own life. Even though she was popular and an honors student admitted to Vassar, she lied to cover up her insecurities. Eventually she lied on her resume-the one that got her a job at the Washington Post.

And then this woman, who was truly outstanding without embellishments, had to live up to the lie she had created.

To a degree, we are all like Janet Cooke. We have grown up in an advertising-saturated culture that worships hype. We can never measure up; we are never good enough. We sell ourselves, and then hope the person buying thinks we are worth it.

Most of us are able to stop before we move from self-promotion to fabrication. But in a culture like ours, the line keeps becoming more blurred.

It’s easier to cross that line when we believe that everyone does it. And it’s frustrating to see others get rewarded on the basis of lies when we fall behind while clinging to the truth.

It’s an especially hard lesson to teach children when they see so few examples of honesty and integrity.

I don’t know how to change this tendency, except in my own life. Truth-telling is not something we mandate or legislate. It is something we come to grips with in our own souls, long before anyone can catch us or point out our inconsistencies.

Telling the truth may not be popular or easy in today’s hyped up, avoid-pain-at-all-costs world. But little lies are seductive. They can enslave us to the point that honesty becomes a difficult choice. And when we are on the run from truth, we are capable of anything.


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