We learn to lie from an early age. In fact, by the age of 3 children are quite versed in the art of fibbing. The lies begin when we gain awareness of the power of language to change our circumstances.
Child: “Mom, can I have a cookie?”
Mom: “How many have you already had?”
Child (telling the truth): “Four.”
Mom: “I think you’ve had enough cookies for today.”
Child (telling a lie): “I haven’t had any cookies today.”
Mom: “OK, you can have a cookie.”
This kind of lying isn’t spiteful, it’s rather a means for a child to explore how the power of words can change their environment or enhance their situation.
How do kids learn to lie? They learn it from watching us, their parents. Why do we teach our children to lie? Because, without a little social discourse it can feel really awkward when your four-year-old yells out, “Aunt Mildred has hair in her ears!” in Aunt Mildred’s presence. To avoid these “fun” social altercations, we teach our children to be mindful of saying things that would hurt other people’s feelings, and we equip them with artful and kind deceptions to help guide them more seamlessly through life.
I am sure most of us, if not all of us strive to live a life of truth, but the reality is that we don’t; we live with white lies, or worse, big lies. The question is why do we live with and tell so many lies, especially when we know that honesty is the best policy and the truth is so much easier to remember? If you tell enough lies you will eventually lose track of what is fact versus what is fiction.
According to the Kotzker Rebbe (an 18th Century Rabbi), no one has ever achieved complete truth in all of history – no one, except the High Priest on Yom Kippur (and that was maybe for a few minutes, at most. The Kotzker Rebbe is described as a man who was a champion for truth; his approach to spirituality was a no-holds-barred, all out frontal attack on false goodness. He insisted that everyone face the brutal truth about himself or herself no matter how much it hurt. The Koztker Rebbe championed living a life of total truth. Many of us could do a quick self-appraisal and feel pretty good about our overall level of honesty. Don’t pat yourself on the back just yet…
Psychologist Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., conducted a study of 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71. They were instructed to keep a diary of all the untruths they told over the course of a week. According to the research findings, most people lie once or twice a day. In reality, most people probably lie MORE because it is reasonable to assume that people lied about how often they lie in a study about lies!
Here is an undeniable fact: we hear and tell many little lies every day.A “white lie” is described as an often trivial, diplomatic or well-intentioned untruth. We lie to shelter others and ourselves from shame or embarrassment. We lie to be kind; we don’t say to a friend, “This is hands down the worst meal I have ever had!” Or, “Did you really think white shorts were a good idea?!” Who does that even if it is the truth? Sometimes we lie because it’s part of our job description. No judgment, but how many honest politicians do you know? Don’t answer that.
We lie, for the most part, to protect people’s feelings, and to keep out of trouble, the extent and damage of which is not taking responsibility for our actions. Think about it, if it’s a toss up between admitting to your boss that your tardiness on Monday was because you overslept versus being stuck in traffic… traffic wins. Although we are encouraged to tell the truth from a young age, the reality is that we are rewarded for lying. The reward is not getting reprimanded by your boss, not hurting someone’s feelings, or simply getting another cookie.
Now, in light of all those little white lies, how close are you to living a life of absolute honesty? Our innocent white lies are an indication of just how far we are from doing so. While no one wants to be unkind to anyone (well, I hope this is the case) why then should we eliminate white lies from our lives? It all depends on your intention. The most important question you need to ask yourself is, what is the better consequence to live with? Are you lying to spare someone’s feelings, or are you lying because you don’t want to face your truth?
Modern psychologists are discovering that the Koztker Rebbe was indeed accurate in his warnings regarding the dangers of lying. In Professor Markman’s article, White Lies Affect Your Behavior, his research indicates that, “white lies aren’t simply a form of social grease that we apply to make our social interactions go more smoothly. We really do recognize them as being lies. And as a result, we need to be quite careful about how these lies affect our future behavior toward the people we have lied to.”
The outcome according to Markman’s research is that we treat people that we have deceived differently—research subjects behaved in a way that indicated that they were trying to make up for telling a lie in the first place. We end up piling lies on top of lies, perpetuating a strained or unfulfilling relationship rather than being truthful about its shortcomings.
“O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
In my opinion, the most important thing behind the lies we tell is our intention for doing so. With children, I think it’s paramount to create a space where they are free to speak their truth. It’s important they know and trust that they can tell you (the parent) the truth, no matter how bad they think it is. I know, as a parent, I would prefer to hear the truth, no matter what. And in return, they need to know that they can trust your word as well.
It’s a delicate balancing act between truth and fiction. We don’t want to come across as unkind. But the fact is we can be honest, and still be nice at the same time. We need to be aware that sometimes it’s easier to tell a lie than having to face the truth about something we feel uncomfortable about. The truth can hurt, and the truth can make us unpopular; let’s be honest, being liked has certain advantages.
Anthropologically speaking, “being liked” meant a more secure place in the social structure of your hunter-gatherer group, which gave you greater chance of survival. It was important to be accepted in a social structure, because there is strength in numbers and loners or individuals cast out on their own were far less likely to survive. “Being well-liked” also meant that you probably received greater amounts of resources (food, water, better shelter) than less well-liked people. The matter of survival made it all the more important to nurture positive feelings toward you within your tribe. Our very survival hard-wired us to tell these little white lies.
But still, no one likes being lied to. One of the biggest reasons we dislike being lied to is because it is a breach of trust and trust is a tricky thing to repair. It comes back to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s good practice – if you don’t want to be lied to, don’t tell lies to others.
Rav Ashlag said that 99% of everything we ever do is done purely for ourselves, for our own happiness, and for our own gratification. This statement begs us to pause and really assess our little white lies. Are we lying to spare someone’s feelings or because it benefits us? Our purpose in this lifetime is to transform our selfish tendencies, share and bring love and happiness to others. While I think it’s fair to say that living a life of COMPLETE truth, and eradicating all the little white lies from our lives isn’t an easy thing to achieve, nor is it a realistic goal, I think we can still strive to be more aware of the lies we tell, why we choose to tell them, and try making an effort to be more honest in all of our relationships.
Leonard Saxe, Ph.D., a polygraph expert and professor of psychology at Brandeis University, says, “Lying has long been a part of everyday life. We couldn’t get through the day without being deceptive.” What an interesting statement. Are you willing to accept a small challenge? I think we should conduct our own experiment.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION:
Let’s find out what prevents us from being 100% truthful at all times. I challenge you to a daylong truth-a-thon. No lies, not even the little white ones, no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Remember to be mindful, we don’t want to be unkind, we simply want to gauge the reasons we choose to be untrue.