We all do it, even though we know we shouldn't. Every major religion condemns lying; you can see for yourself if you click on the link above. If it's so universally frowned upon in practically every culture on Earth, then why is it so common?
Let's be honest. (Ha.) Who hasn't made their lives a little bit easier with the occasional untruth? "I love your new haircut!" "My cell phone was dead." "Oh I didn't know you were coming into town!" Or, my favorite: "No. I'm not mad." Lies make our day to day existence a little easier. They can smooth over hurt feelings. They allow us to better get along with each other. So how can they be so bad?
I was raised a very strict Catholic, and I took the whole "Ten Commandments" thing seriously. Thou Shalt Not Lie? Okay. From God's lips to my ears! Even if a lie could have gotten me out of a tight spot, I refrained. I softened the truth, perhaps, but I always told it. Almost always, anyway. And if I was weak in the moment, and I did tell a lie, I would later confess it and explain myself, hoping for forgiveness. But to my parents, and I'm being honest here, I hardly ever lied. I'm sitting here trying to remember a single lie I told them, and I cannot. I was a very truthful kid. I took truthfulness so seriously that my honesty became widely known and appreciated about me. One guy in my college told another girl he liked me because I seemed like I'd always be straight with them, and I mostly was. (Mostly. Once I made a painful mistake that I'll always regret because I didn't understand the relationship I was in, but that's another blog post.) Once I graduated, my boss was fond of exclaiming about me: "Amy is the most HONEST person you'll ever meet!" I liked being known for that. It made me feel really good.
Then, shortly after I graduated from college, my parents began divorce proceedings. My brother and I were both young adults living on our own so there was no custody battle, and our parents had been separated for years, so it ought to have been a somewhat amicable negotiation, but it was NOT. Nasty secrets were dragged from the war-chest; accusations and denials flew through the air like ballistic missiles. Two people I'd have sworn were fairly mature individuals turned into spitting screaming toddlers. I was shocked, and then I was numb, and then I was confused. There were so many accusations flying around that I realized at one point: One or both of my parents are lying to me.
I realize this is common behavior during a divorce. Legal lawsuits rarely bring out the best in people, but when the plaintiffs used to sleep together and know each other's secrets, things can get evil. Even knowing this truth didn't help me cope with the idea that my parents, whom I'd struggled my entire life to be completely honest with, were telling me lies, and about really big important things too.
Then I began to realize that all the adults around me lied, a LOT. My coworkers lied, my friends lied, the frigging President of the United States was telling some whoppers... It seemed like I was the ONLY person in the world who really cared about telling the truth. I was fed up, and I started trying it out. I started lying.
It was about little things at first. "Sorry I'm late but my car broke down." "I can't come to your wedding because I have to work." "Yeah, I've got a cold. Can't come to work today." THEN, the party fund happened.
The party fund.
I worked in a jewelry store for that same boss who was always proclaiming my honesty. Sometimes women would bring their diamond rings in to be steam cleaned. It was kind of fun putting on the safety gloves and getting out the rubber-grip pliers to hold the ring under the vapor that jetted through a tiny spigot, blowing all the dirt and crud off someone's shiny diamond. I loved doing it. It cost the person a couple bucks, but instead of keeping track of such a tiny sale in the register our boss had us put the cash in a coffee can for later use as a party fund. WELL, one day I rushed in to work at the last second and discovered I had no money for a cup of coffee at the nearby coffee stand. I didn't want a caffeine headache, so I borrowed a couple bucks from the party fund to be paid back later. Only... did I pay it back? I couldn't remember. And I was late a few more times, and borrowed a little more, until I lost track of how much money I'd borrowed in the first place. Basically, I was stealing. Little Miss Honesty had graduated to the big time. Yep. That's right. I had become a petty thief.
Little did I know that one of my coworkers was keeping close track of the party fund, and she brought it to my boss's attention that something like twenty bucks was missing, and it came out at an employee meeting. My face went cold, and I sat there embarrassed and feeling like a jerk, but did I own up to it? I should have. I really should have explained I'd just needed some coffee and I'd always meant to pay it back. I didn't, though, and the mystery remained unsolved. Ever after, I had a hard time holding my head up at work. I felt miserable about it. You know what? I still do.
I'd gone from being painstakingly honest to a thief in a few short months.
If I hadn't told those little lies, would I have worked my way up to wholesale thievery? Who can say? Now that I'm older I can recognize how young and confused I was, and I can see that I was acting out. I felt disillusioned with the world, disappointed and let down by people who were very close to me, and I wanted to lash out. I wanted to take advantage of other people's trust the way I felt I'd been taken advantage of. It might've felt good in the moment, but in the long term it feels bad. It's one of my more painful memories.
After that, my boss stopped proclaiming my honesty because, of course, she figured it out. I think all my coworkers kind of realized it must be me. I lost face with them. I lost their respect. I felt degraded, and then I started feeling left out of conversations, and not really "in" with people anymore. Of course the stealing didn't help my image, but if I'd owned up to it, if I'd just been honest in the moment and said, "Oh, that was me. I needed some quick cash and I was going to pay it back on payday. Sorry." People might've been weirded out by it, but I would have been redeemable after that. Because I lied, no redemption for me.
My parents' divorce went through, they settled out of court, the dust settled, and then... There I was. Somehow not the same person I'd been when the whole thing began, but I don't think it was my parents' actions that changed me. My actions, my decision to experiment with being a liar, put a mark on me, and it was a mark that I thought everyone around me could see, and I was ashamed.
So now I'm back to being painstakingly honest, or at least I try to be. Somehow I don't have the same discipline that I did as a kid, maybe because I woke up to how much I was being lied to on a daily basis, because we all do it, right? Ever since I had a taste of how much easier it is to lie, though, it's harder. I struggle more with the temptation. The big one for me is being honest with friends when I'm mad at them. I'm too afraid of losing the friendship. But I try to always tell the truth to everyone. And if the truth is too painful? I try to say nothing at all.
I think that lying is frowned upon in most cultures because of this effect it has on the human spirit. There is no dignity in lying, and that's the truth. When you lie you are skirting responsibility, trying to avoid the consequences of your actions, or you're trying to manipulate the people around you, using them as pawns. Lying never comes from a place of strength. It's a sniveling, crawling, sneaking way of wriggling out of the difficulties in relating to other people. Lying is weak. It takes strength and courage to be honest, it really does. That's why so many people lie so much of the time. Honesty is hard. But the person who is honest can always hold their head up. They can always be proud of who they are. And other people usually respect that integrity. In fact, I believe honesty is the only way to deserve the respect of others, but perhaps more important, it ensures the respect of self. Believe me, solid self-respect is worth suffering through those uncomfortable moments of truth telling.
Whether you believe in the existence of sin, honesty is the more practical route. In the long run, owning the truth is safer, and much more dignified. Honesty is the path to good social standing. Lying is a certain path to disrepute.