The Lies We Tell

I was walking by the river today, and I decided to take some pictures of the wild clematis that grows there. It’s all in bloom now, and it grows over the bushes and shrubs at the edge of the water like a scattering of white stars. Its common name is Traveler’s Joy, which I have always liked.

Walking beside the river, with the honey-sweet smell of the Traveler’s Joy in the air, I was thinking of the lies we tell, and of one central truth: Most people lie most of the time.

They don’t necessarily know that they’re lying. And it’s not necessarily verbal. You can see people walking down the street, and without saying a word they’re conveying the message “I’m normal. I’m just like you.” The older I get, and the more I know about people, the more I realize that no one is normal. As soon as you catch a glimpse beneath the surface, you realize that everyone has secret places. Everyone is hiding something. Perhaps I’m talking about this because recently I’ve been writing more, and going more deeply into my writing. And one thing you have to do, as a writer — at least the sort of writer I want to be — is tell the truth. To do that, you need to know the truth, to understand how people lie to each other and to themselves — in ways even they don’t see. Two stories I worked on this summer are first-person, which means that I’m speaking from the perspective of the character. The most important thing to know about your first-person characters is what lies they’re telling themselves — often about themselves.

Once, I met a woman who seemed to have the perfect life: beautiful suburban house; tall, handsome, wealthy husband; three beautiful children. Several years later, she walked out of her house, got into her car, and shot herself in the head. Lies are deadly, I think. Especially the ones that go “I’m normal. I’m just like you. Everything is fine.”

The people who lie least often, in my experience, are artists and writers. If you are trying to capture some sort of truth, it’s very hard to lie, even to yourself. And about yourself — artists and writers are not very good at pretending to be normal, and most of the time they don’t even try.

One reason I’m thinking about this now is that it’s a political season, and politicians seem to lie more than most people. They are the masters of saying “I’m just like you” in convincing ways. And they tap into something that I’m going to call societal lies — these are our clichés. The distinguishing feature of a cliché is self-congratulation. It is a cliché, for example, that all babies are beautiful. Of course most babies are not beautiful most of the time — babies are going through so much, it’s unfair to expect them to be beautiful as well, as though they lived in a perpetual soap commercial. But the societal lie, the cliché, works like this: “All babies are beautiful. It is good to think that babies are beautiful. Therefore, I am a good person.” You can substitute any number of phrases.

I don’t think I’m explaining this particular well, in part because I’m trying to say something complicated. When I create a character, I have to build in these levels of complication. That woman I knew: how long did she tell herself that she was happy? That she loved her house and her husband and her children? Perhaps she did, but if so, that truth was partial — there was a hidden place, a secret in the darkness.

I have met people who achieve a kind of normalcy, who live and believe the clichés. I always find them frightening, because there is so much they have had to not see in order to get there. They have often had to insist on normalcy, in themselves and others. They are not creative — they can be difficult even to talk to, because one does not know what to say. There is only so long one can talk about the latest television shows.

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4 Responses to The Lies We Tell

  1. Interesting. Yes, I think it’s a complicated thing you’re talking about here.

    I think part of the problem is in definitions of things that we lie about. People regularly lie that they’re normal, in the sense of being like everyone else, fitting in to some sort of social status or what-have-you. But in a sense we are all like each other, if by that we mean that we’re human, with the same basic needs, similar requirements for happiness (though these can take a billion different forms), etc. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to emphasise the universal nature of human experience. The problem comes in when people use arbitrary definitions to keep others out–or, in the case of the woman you mentioned, who killed herself, possibly using such definitions to deny herself.

    It’s also possible, I think, to be truthful about lying and yet continue to lie gleefully. I’m a fan of artifice, when it’s deliberate; if beauty is a constructed thing, as you’d been discussing in another post, it is essentially deliberate artifice, and that I think is a good in the world. The same for our general societal conceptions of the ‘natural’, when acknowledged to be societal conceptions. It’s sort of like enjoying the pleasurable illusion of the stage magician, but not the fake psychic who uses the same techniques to take advantage. Basically I’m talking about lies that are authentic, maybe precisely because they are acknowledged lies. Is this somehow related to people using certain things ironically?

    Another thing that happens, though, that I find very interesting, is the fascination people can have with B-movies. I think people enjoy these because they are made authentically–the real successes seem to be those that are made very poorly but by people who believed that their movies were genuinely going to be great. Are we enjoying them because it’s like watching a car accident, the crash that happens betweens someone’s expectations and the lie they eventually have to face? Or is it because we get to see their genuine care so much more strongly when placed against the backdrop of the mess the project ended up becoming? I’m not sure, but I think it’s related to what you’ve been talking about here, and I find the phenomena fascinating.

  2. Mare says:

    Oh yes, the pasted-on persona that we were encouraged to create via our childhood “handlers” are masking the us that we have perhaps never even met.

    I some times ask my clients, “what would you do if you could do anything at all. You have no monetary restriction or lack of time or resources, what would you do?” Or some times I ask “if you could have your dream job, what would it be?” Most often people say something like: “I don’t even know what I want to do anymore, or what would make me happy.” Some people report that the last time they knew what they wanted to do was in their teens or earlier and they are not even sure those dreams are real to them any more but there is some distant, internal sense of dissatisfaction of unknown origin.

    Have we forgotten how to dream?

    A grand amnesia seems to have taken place. While most people spent the bulk of their formative years very busy fitting in, getting by, and then getting a job and paying the bills, in the process they seem to have given nary a thought at all to what they wanted in their heart of hearts. Swept along in the cultural tides without much architecture, fore thought or planning. Pasting on the happy smile for the outside, and perhaps like the woman in your story, finally succumbing to the soul killing lie so craftily constructed for the world.

    Not all, no, plenty of people have vision and work hard to achieve goals and some people may even know what drives that inspiration. However, I see and meet many more who never even asked those questions but instead made mom and dad proud, or did the right thing, or the safe thing, or the cheapest thing, or the thing their friends did or the thing on t.v that some famous person did. But did they ever really quietly sit down and ask, and then wait for an answer of their deepest longings, and truest self?

    A shocking amount of people are on anti depressants or any one of a variety of pain numbing substances from alcohol and food, to shopping, sex, or hours of video games and t.v watching. All the ways to endure, all the ways to cope when your whole life has been an unexamined act of epic proportion.

    Add to that, time.

    Time that moves on with us or without us bringing us, ever closer to our own earthly demise. It is sort of a wonder that so many of us endure it all while secretly not only wishing we were someone else but not even having the slightest clue as to who on earth we actually are. Pants are on fire through out every sector, class, gender or back ground.

    Thanks for again writing about a thought provoking topic~~

  3. When you publish some of these essays, which I hope you do, this must be included.
    I tried for a long time when I was young to look ‘normal.’ I was a penniless girl among
    wealthy students at a private college. I gave up. Being a wild theatre major helped
    but that was just another persona. Confronted with not having enough money to
    complete my senior year, I discovered my true self. As I have written before, it was
    with the help of Tillie Olsen, Isak Dinesen and some gritty spirit I found from old
    Idaho pioneers and my immigrant grandparents. Embraced by that, I feel much better than some figment of an imagined ‘nicer, better, happy’ person.

  4. Jon Awbrey says:

    So many stories and plays turn on the consequences of believing a falsehood.

    Most likely because so many lives do …

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