I just finished listening to Sam Harris’ audiobook Lying and it was revelatory on many levels. I think of myself as an honest person. I don’t lie in general. If I had to draw a distinction between the cases where I would and wouldn’t feel a lot of guilt over lying the fault lines would most likely fall between my professional and personal life. While I find it abhorrent when people engage in deception at work–and thankfully, all the places I have worked so far have not given me any cause to worry in this regard–my own personal life is not so spotless when it comes to lying. I sometimes catch myself performing little acts of omission or editing details of events in a manner engineered to mislead others into thinking about me the way I might like to be thought of. This is of course entirely stupid. But that is the truth sadly. Or let me say that it has been the case so far. It is painful to acknowledge these moments where I attempted to bend reality. In this context I’m happy to have read Harris’ book and encourage you to as well. In the rest of the post I’ll outline some of the ideas from the book and present two of my takeaways.
To get the discussion started, here are two examples where I lied recently.
In the first, my friend invited me to his place one evening to play video games. While walking over, I decide to grab a bite to eat at a kebab shop, which essentially became my dinner. At his place his wife asks me if I want to have dinner. I say that I’m not really hungry, but she is quite insistent about it and asks me if I’ve had dinner already. I am surprised by the question and shocked at myself unable to tell the truth–I’d just had a kebab, so no thank you. What am I, ashamed? Do I not want to let her know that I had a cheap dinner? Why do I care that I would be judged for it? Why would I even think that I would be judged for it? In any case, I remain silent and let the moment pass.
In the second, while meeting with my physiotherapist she asked if I had returned to work 100%. The truth is that I had been working a 100% intermittently but the pain in my shoulder got worse at one point from typing so I took more days off. On that particular day I was not working, but I nevertheless replied yes to her question. For the next minute I kept asking myself why the hell I said that. Do I want her to have sympathy for my circumstances? Perhaps, pathetically, I want to be cared for more tenderly by creating the impression that I still have to work?
That is the nature of a lie. It prevents us from confronting our own self. Our inner lives become starved of richness. Our actions no longer correspond to our intents. In fact we may not even know ourselves what our intents are. Reality can be a harsh teacher, but it is a very good one. It presents us with many tests of our own congruence–do we act as we say, and do we say as we believe? But lying prevents us from facing up to these tests and prevents us from ever truly knowing ourselves. That is perhaps the first thing that struck me when listening to Harris’ book.
In the book he presents a few examples of lying. In the first he refuses to speak at the graduation ceremony as a valedictorian of his class, offering the excuse that it would be more appropriate for someone else who had been at the institution longer to speak instead. The truth was that he was extremely afraid of public speaking. This, again, is a lie offered so as to avoid confronting oneself. Imagine if he had instead told the truth. Perhaps he might have received encouragement from others and it could’ve been the beginning of a story of personal growth.
In another example, two women are at a restaurant. One of them no longer wants to meet another friend later in the day and therefore calls her up and tells her a completely fictitious story about how her child is sick and that she can’t make the date anymore. The effortless manner in which lied without compunction makes the other woman wonder in her mind how often she herself had been on the receiving end of such lies. Lying in this case destroys trust between friends.
On the topic of white lies, where we lie to spare another person’s feelings, Harris presents some persuasive examples to even avoid these “harmless lies”. And the arguments are solid. In one case, a woman has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and admitted to a hospital for treatment. But her husband “protects” her from the truth, saying that the treatment is a standard procedure and that everything will be fine. One of the many damning aspects of lying is at work here. As the husband has resorted to lying, he must now continue to act in ways that do not reveal the truth to his wife. So he cannot say any number of important things to her, even though this may be the last time he sees her alive.
Another situation where people typically resort to white lies is when others ask feedback about their work. Here too the argument for honesty is persuasive–it is more important for the person asking feedback to receive your true assessment of their work than your made-up response arising from a presumption about how they may take it. Treating them like a child and protecting them from reality in this way is obviously wrong, even though we commonly engage in this sort of behavior.
The book however does not simply advocate a position of telling everything to everyone and being honest without tact. Would you want to respond in long form to a stranger’s how-are-you? These subtleties are duly addressed and you can read them in the book yourself. The larger point still stands–honesty is not only a moral obligation but a tool that can deepen personal relationships, contribute to a richer understanding of ourselves and ultimately make us better human beings.
The one instance where he does admit that it is perfectly reasonable to lie is in self-defense situations. The argument presented here is compelling yet simple: why would you not lie in a situation where you would have no qualms drawing a gun? Lying your way successfully out of such a situation, presumably avoiding a violent confrontation, would after all be the appropriate thing to do.
After letting these ideas simmer in my mind I realized that one of the greatest strengths of telling the truth lies in how it helps us in manufacturing meaning in and for our lives. I need to rewind a little to let this message to sink in properly.
As kids we don’t have great regard for the future. We don’t care for it very much because the allure of the present is arresting. Our curiosity about the world we live and the people around us keeps us very busy. Even everyday objects we stumble across warrant explanation and we are too preoccupied in the moment to think about much else. Our interactions with people insofar as we tell the truth or utter lies matter very little in such circumstances where the future is some vague idea that always seems to take too long to materialize and consequences of our actions in either case are minor. Indeed we may even take pleasure in misleading others and experiment with lying simply for the sake of amusement.
However, as we grow up essentially all of these facts become very much the opposite of what it once used to be. Our actions have great consequences for our own lives, and the future is a fairly straightforward outcome of our actions in the present. I would even say that as adults, our entire lives comprise attempts to shape that future every single day. The present then becomes something that is deliberately sacrificed for a more desirable future. So on the one hand, the future falls into our hands. On the other, the scaffolding in our lives as kids, typically in the form of schools and university, that lent structure and direction is eventually removed. There is no longer a clear and simple goal such as passing the exams or graduating. As young adults we are faced with the extraordinary task of manufacturing meaning in our lives. Who am I? What am I good at? How do I orient myself in this world? What do I ultimately find worth seeking? These are extremely difficult questions, which we did not have to confront in any previous stage of our lives, and these questions demand answers. As with any problem solving activity, the task is enormously simplified by talking to other people about it. This after all is the Socratic method of stimulating critical thinking and arriving at the truth by means of dialogue. Software engineers know this well. They in fact have determined this method to be so useful in their profession that even a highly undesirable conversation partner in the form an inanimate rubber duck is preferred to stewing in a tangled web of their own thoughts when confronted by a problem.
It is here that the power of truth is undeniable. When we speak honestly with people, are able to articulate our thoughts and intentions with clarity, and genuinely seek answers to these difficult questions, then not only do our conversations themselves become meaningful, but we also edge closer to discovering the very answers we seek. So in telling lies we incur an enormous opportunity cost. In fact it is the greatest cost of all—the cost of life itself, to the extent that we ascribe importance to living a true life and discovering our nature in the process.
I suppose that’s what people really mean when they say, “When you lie, you are deceiving yourself”. I used to hear this phrase as a child from my teachers but never understood it. No one explained it to me, I didn’t work it out for myself, and I’m sure that not many teachers who bandied it around really got it either. So I’m glad I revisited it after listening to Harris’ audiobook. It has had a substantial impact on me—I no longer get in nature’s way when it tries to straighten me out. Do you?