Post 295

Oh Pinocchio! Reflections on Lying

I once looked into the story of Pinocchio. I was familiar with it only through the Disney movie version, so I was interested in the book when it crossed my path. I didn’t get very far, because it struck me as a dreary and pointless collection of adventures. Interminable would be the right word. But I bring it up because of the nose. The key thing to know about Pinocchio is the thing about the nose. It grows. The nose grows whenever Pinocchio lies. I’ll return to this.

Do you stay awake at night remembering the embarrassing things you have said and done? I have finally stopped wincing at the recollection of a lie I told. I once planned to make a cherry cheesecake for a dinner party, but I found that shopping for the ingredients was expensive. The recipe called for a lot of Philadelphia cream cheese, for instance. I stood there looking at the brands and the prices, and after a long pause, I went for the cheaper brand. I made the cake and the people at the dinner party really liked it. Another guest, Ruth, turned to me asked me, point blank, whether I had used Philadelphia cream cheese. I was kind of stunned. I was quite new at cooking and baking, and I didn’t know whether it was very bad for me to not have used Philadelphia cream cheese. I said yes.

Some would say that it was a ‘little white lie,’ but I don’t want such a defence. The best defence I could give myself would have to do with the element of being surprised by the question, and being put on the spot in front of others. But even that is not a full excuse. The truth is that there isn’t a full excuse, by which I mean that there isn’t an excuse that absolves me completely of my responsibility. My failing reveals that, in the moment, I was more concerned about my reputation than the truth. I was worried that people would think that I was a stupid cook, or a cheap cook, or both.

Nowadays, I don’t think I’d bring a homemade cheesecake to a dinner party. What if the host has prepared a chocolate cake? You don’t want the desserts to compete. Mind you, I suppose it’s possible that I had volunteered to supply the dessert. I can’t remember much about the event, other than this conversation that everyone else has forgotten. Everyone is so busy remembering other conversations that they’ve had.

As for Ruth herself, she may think, to this day, that I used Philadelphia cream cheese. Or maybe she knew I was lying. So maybe I’ll just come out and say: Ruth, I’m sorry I lied to you about the brand of cream cheese.


Are you there?

(Bloggers must always assume, almost simultaneously, that nobody is reading, and that everyone is.)

Oddly, I tell this story before telling you that I have strict standards when it comes to telling the truth. And, until quite recently, I felt that I was in very good company in this regard. Isn’t everyone else doing their best to always be honest? Isn’t honesty the norm?

Our society does still have a Judeo-Christian outlook about the essential things. Dishonesty is still considered bad. When people observe that President Trump is a liar, they mean it as a criticism, not just as a neutral statement of fact.

So people don’t want to admit that they have lied. The exception to this is that they will admit it when they expect that their listener will applaud their deceit. “I told the officer blah blah blah, and he totally believed me!” Cue chuckling.

And thus you wouldn’t know, from looking around, or from talking to people, that they lie, frequently, repeatedly, almost habitually. They use it as a means of getting through life in the smoothest way possible.

But I am so tired of it! I am tired of all of the versions of this. I’m tired of the big-boastful-in-your-face lies, and I’m tired of the smiley, fake-ity, I’m-so-nice lying! I am exasperated by the people who pretend that they are entirely on your side, but unable to lift a finger to assist you when you need it. Their hands are just, well, tied. They just, well, can’t. “Sorry! I’m so sorry! I wish you the best! I can’t help you this time or the next, but I’m really so nice, and I’m really so caring!”

The truth is that when you care, you will actively seek for a solution. You may be limited in what you can do, but you will exert yourself. You won’t be sighing and smiling and blaming this circumstance and that policy; you’ll just make an effort. People are creative when they are motivated. When someone cares, then they will apply their intelligence to figuring out how they can help.

The most exasperating of all, of course, are those who cast themselves as holy, and yet who won’t do anything to help those who need it. Indeed, they are the most practiced of all in appearing concerned and helpful while being entirely dismissive. The only question for them is how much effort they need to expend in appearing to be ‘good,’ before they can get back to their lair and their favorite apps. And sometimes it’s worse than this. I remember being told by someone, “I’ll pray for you,” and when I questioned that comment, which was quite out-of-keeping with the context, he apologized, because he knew that he was using this line in the worst possible way (almost as a curse).Those who are the most publicly holy are often the quickest to put on a smile, but behind it, there is nothing. There is no empathy, and there is no kindness.

This phenomenon is as old as the hills. When Jesus told his Good Samaritan parable, you notice that the ‘holy’ characters act badly when nobody else is watching: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31-32). (A Levite is a priest’s assistant.) And Jesus rebuked the pharisees, who burdened others while doing nothing to ease these burdens. They burdened others by making new rules, and by appearing, themselves, to set an example of holiness. Their techniques worked, in that others felt badly for not being able to attain such high standards. The average person couldn’t be bothered with setting aside one-tenth of the kitchen herbs for the Lord, and consequently felt like a sinner compared with the Pharisees, who always acted righteously, or so it appeared.

Nowadays when we say the word “Pharisee,” we know that we are talking about the ‘bad guys,’ but it wasn’t like that then. Back then, they were seen as the holy ones, the ones who had been abundantly blessed by God as recognition for their upstanding lives and pure hearts. For Jesus to criticize them was absolutely astonishing.

Who are the new Pharisees?

They are everywhere. Some are in the pro-life movement. Some are doctors and teachers. Some work at your local church. Some preach. In every corner of the world, finding someone who is widely perceived as ‘good’ and ‘holy,’ is all too often a case of finding someone who looks great from the outside, but is entirely rotten underneath.

Do I exaggerate? Or am I simply saying that the phenomenon, existing in Jesus’ time, condemned by Jesus, continues today?

And right now, I am saying that you can see it in the lying. The lying face smiles, and tells you that she really, really, cares about you, but can’t do a thing to help. The lying face nods sympathetically, but forgets about you the moment you turn your back, or worse: actively hopes for your undoing.

The phenomenon was captured perfectly by the VeggieTales song, “Busy.” Here’s the link:

The lyrics are:

Archibald (Mayor): I’m busy, busy, dreadfully busy
You’ve no idea what I have to do.
Busy, busy, shockingly busy
Much, much too busy for you.

Larry: Oh, I see.

Archibald and Doctor: We’re busy, busy, dreadfully busy
You’ve no idea what we have to do.
Busy, busy, shockingly busy
Much, much too busy for you.

‘Cause we’re busy, busy, frightfully busy
More than a bumblebee, more than an ant.
Busy, busy, horribly busy
We’d love to help, but we can’t!

One of the interesting indicators of lying has to do with facial expressions. I once came across the phrase ‘micro-expressions,’ or something to that effect. Ah yes, an internet search just now shows me that I have remembered the right phrase.

Here’s what Wikipedia says,

“A microexpression is the innate result of a voluntary and involuntary emotional response that conflicts with one another. This occurs when the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) responds appropriately to the stimuli that the individual experiences and the individual wishes to conceal this specific emotion. This results in the individual very briefly displaying their true emotions followed by a false emotional reaction.”

Do you understand? Have you seen it?

Sadly, I have seen it many, many times. I notice it quite often when someone in a service-industry related job, usually in a receptionist-type of capacity, is quite happy to deliver bad news. There’s that flash of a smile that’s gone very quickly, and replaced by a sober expression telling you that the booking you need is unavailable, or that you’ll have to pay an extra service fee.

One of the most memorable examples for me of observing a micro-expression was in a conversation where a man was telling his friends, a husband and wife, that he had landed a new job, and was now working for the same big employer that they were working for. There was a look of horror on the face of both husband and wife, replaced almost instantaneously with smiles and words of congratulations. It was quite remarkable, and really quite creepy as I reflect back on it.

I speak about these micro-expressions because they are commonplace, and reveal surprising things. They show that people habitually disguise their very negative real feelings in order to project a much more positive image.

Now you’re asking whether there’s any harm in that. You’re saying that the world would be far worse if people didn’t fake it.

I understand your point, and I agree that it would be really grim if the airline guy started laughing upon saying your plane is delayed until tomorrow.

But the line must be drawn at LYING. It’s just not right for people who don’t care to say that they do. It’s just not right for people to say that they wish it were otherwise, when they don’t.

Is this a Canadian problem? To some extent, I think it is. I think that Canadians are particularly concerned about appearing ‘nice’ from the very first moment of meeting (meaning that, arguably, things can really only go downhill from there), and are particularly prone to stepping in with a lie. I also believe this is a Christian problem. Christians want to appear to be ‘nice,’ and will speak words of support and solidarity when all they really, really want is for you to fail.

You say that I rant.

Let’s say that I don’t even go for the obvious first line of defence, and ask you to define a rant. Let’s say I accept that, and let’s say that I want to talk about that.

First, does the notion of ‘ranting,’ (unending, and almost irrational or hysterical complaining) as a way of describing human expression, not in itself show that we, as a society, are highly uncomfortable with a genuine exploration of topics? Does it not show that we, as a society, would really just rather if we all stopped saying anything in order to resume the smiling façade?

And second, may I ask: Are some things worth ranting about? Is there something wrong with expressing strong dissatisfaction when something is, in fact, amiss?

If addressing a problem in a long and detailed fashion is a rant, then sign me up for ranting, provided that I have a free moment or two.

Truth needs to be given more respect. We must challenge the notion that it’s fine (or even noble) to lie in order to spare someone’s feelings. It’s not. It is very, very, wrong.

A trusting person can go for years, or decades, believing that he or she is surrounded by the Very Best Kind of People, because none of these people will ever reveal otherwise — not intentionally, that is. The false front misleads, as it is intended to. The pretense of kindness or holiness creates an artificial world, and this can be sustained for a very long time, provided that those who are deceived do not question too rigorously, and provided that those who are deceived always give ‘the benefit of the doubt,’ to the liars.

You see, the reason that Jesus needed to expose the evil of the Pharisees was because the Pharisees were successful in their deceit. They really did have the people convinced that they were earnest, humble, devout and full of love for the Lord. Anybody who wondered about the inconsistencies in the behaviour of the Pharisees would not speak up. And, as a matter of fact, a person critical of such holy people would even doubt himself; he would say to himself that the apparent flaws of these good men must be due to his own sinfulness.

So when Jesus ‘went public,’ he condemned these ‘holy’ men openly. He needed to release the common people from their awe and admiration of these deceivers. He loved the common people, and so he gave them the truth.

The deceit never goes on forever. Sooner or later, God allows the mask to fall, and you see that the deacon is a thief and a liar. You see that the priest was an abuser and a liar. You see that the mother-figure was a fraud and a liar.

Notice that in each case of problematic behaviour, you will always be dealing with someone who is a liar. Lying is what creates the context and opportunity for further evil.

Satan is the father of lies. He has no power other than to tell lies.

To the extent that you tell lies, you are imitating his example. You are being his follower. I don’t care how you dress it up or ‘reframe’ it in your head. The fact is, you’re doing it. You are telling people that you really hope for this, but you in fact are hoping for the opposite. You say that you want this, but you want something different. You tell people that you don’t care about that, but you do.

In addition to the I’m-so-nice-but-unable type of lie, people often tell stories where they are the innocent victim.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is such a thing as an innocent victim. The Old Testament account of Job is not a fiction.

But I want you to think, for instance, about all of those stories you’ve heard from the wife about the husband. In all of those stories, the wife is the innocent and selfless victim of an uncaring brute of a man. The truth is, most couples are equal. When you hear one spouse complain about the other, you would be quite right in assuming both are to blame, usually equally, over the course of a week. When you hear the woman complain about her husband, I warrant that in 99 cases out of 100, she is omitting the details about her own contribution to the problem.

I spoke to a lawyer who worked for the federal government. Her responsibility was to write cheques to victims of residential schools. In other words, she was charged with distributing the settlement funds. She listened to the stories of victims, and the worse the account of the suffering or abuse was, the bigger the cheque she would write. She shuddered at the stories that she heard.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

In this context, some of the stories would be motivated by money. The teller of the story would say to himself or to herself that the alleged perpetrator, being dead, wouldn’t care what is said now.

As I said, don’t get me wrong. There is such a thing as an innocent victim. The Genesis 37 story of Joseph and his scheming, dastardly brothers is not a fiction. In the case of children institutionalized or otherwise put into the care of uncaring or predatory adults, this is appallingly frequent.

But sometimes, people make up stories. They think that it doesn’t matter, that they aren’t hurting anyone. However, every offence against truth is an offence against God. Every lie is a very serious problem.

And speaking of lawyers, I recently attended a function where a lawyer told me about his past addiction to crack cocaine. I can’t remember how he worded it, but he referred to his addiction in such a way that made it sound as if he really had no choice in the matter. I challenged him on this. Was the choice of beginning the crack cocaine not his? He really didn’t like this, and his hackles went up. He said that I was berating him, and extracted a promise from me that I wouldn’t berate him any further if he told his story of how he got addicted in the first place. I said okay, though I think, on reflection, that I conceded too much with my promise. I should have used the obvious first line of defence, and asked him to define ‘to berate.’

So this is his story. He is in court with a female client charged with a crime. When the court session ends, she asks him to drive her home. He says no initially, but she says that her back and such-and-such make it difficult for her to get home. He agrees and drives. While he is driving, she begins using crack cocaine. The car fills with smoke. He angrily asks her to stop, but she doesn’t. He is instantly addicted. He reaches what she gives as the destination, about which he said to me, “it was probably a crack house.” From then on, he is addicted, but after great efforts through various agencies, he frees himself from his addiction.

I asked him how he got his own crack cocaine. He had a three-part answer.

(Beware of multi-part answers. “I couldn’t come to watch your performance because just when I was almost out the door, I was made to do more cleaning for the worthy charity, and my car was in the shop for repairs.  Plus I was still recovering from a bad case of the stomach flu, and I didn’t want to make anyone else sick.”)

The first was that “there are crack houses everywhere.” The second was that “she took me to a crack house” (so he knew where it was thereafter), and the third was that, “when you’re addicted, you’re addicted — you’ll find it.”

So do you believe his story? By being a nice guy, and agreeing to help a woman in need, he winds up, through no fault of his own, with a crack cocaine addiction.

The problem with being a criminal lawyer is that a lawyer may be tempted to steer the client in the direction of the ‘best’ story. The lawyer knows which facts are most damning, and hopes that those facts don’t surface at trial. The lawyer also sees that if certain other facts were to be introduced, then the case would go better for the client. It becomes a dangerous game. Every lawyer likes to win a case, and a record of winning cases improves your reputation and your business.

But any lawyer who encourages his client to lie is violating his professional duties and is being immoral. Indeed, he may bear more guilt for misleading the listeners than the criminal, because the lawyer chooses the path of deceit in a more calculated way, and because he takes the position of adviser. Those lawyers who find themselves seeking the gray area, where truth is obscured, should find a new line of work, asap.

By contrast, a good criminal defence lawyer does not reinvent the past. There are ways to pursue a rigorous examination of the prosecution’s version and evidence without introducing what is false. Indeed, the dedication to the truth must remain of paramount importance for defence lawyers, who are tempted to win cases, and to help their clients. There is a limit to how much one can help. There’s a limit.

In the same way, there is a limit to how much we can ‘be nice.’ There is a limit, and that limit is truth. There’s a line. On this side, there’s what’s true, and on that side, there’s what’s false.

In North America, many people live by the rule (at least while outside the home) that “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” It’s a problematic concept, and not necessarily Christian, for that matter. Review the New Testament if you don’t believe me. How many times would Jesus’ words be condemned by the modern world as being less than ‘nice’?

It should be: “If you can’t say something true, then don’t say anything at all.”

Being ‘nice’ by lying, by pretending to be who you are not, by pretending to feel what you do not, is wrong. When repeated over time, such lies can add up to paint such an enormously false picture of a person, institution or situation.

Yet these false pictures will one day be exposed. So be honest. Don’t say what you think sounds good; don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Eventually, the truth will come out (because God is merciful and will not allow the charade to continue) and the relationship will be in shambles.

Those who work in service industries, who in fact do not care at all for the people they serve, should also reconsider their line of work. Don’t be a receptionist if you don’t like people. Don’t work for an airline if you envy the people who travel. Look for a new job asap. Some types of work involve many hours of interaction with inanimate objects. Do that instead.

So now I return to Pinocchio. You’ve heard, I think, that the human nose continues to grow even after one reaches adulthood? In fact, they say that the nose grows one’s whole life. Others disagree, and say that it isn’t the case that the cartilage continues to grow; it is merely an issue of gravity making it appear larger. Does it matter whether or not there is growth if the consensus is that it appears larger as we age? The larger appearance, whether real or just perceived, contributes to the increasing ugliness of aging men and women. We all begin with a cute little nose, but years later, it looks really quite different.

As I learn more and more about the human heart and the woeful choices being made generation after generation, I can’t help but wonder about this too.

What if people’s noses do grow (or appear larger) in direct proportion to how much they lie? A lie at a time, and a fraction of a millimeter added on, day after day, week after week, month after month. Uglier and uglier. Maybe it is this way. Maybe it is some sort of visual indicator of lies told. Stranger things than this are true.

But of course, I don’t know. I don’t know if the nose knows. I don’t know if the Pinocchio story has this dimension of truth. What I do know, however, is that God knows. God knows that you often leave the truth aside, and that you don’t need to.

So for the sake of your soul, and maybe your nose, if you can’t say something true, then don’t say anything at all.