Posted May 31, 2019, this Reflection is about the cost of deception. Every part of you that screams that eliminating all lying from your life will hurt you is in fact the deceiver. You can live courageously, chest proud, looking to the horizon with a humble heart, knowing that your integrity is impenetrable. Or you can believe in the idea that the world is out to get you and you cannot survive without your little white lies, or big-ass deceptions, and watch as the world responds in kind. It is your choice.
I can tell you, from having experienced both, that the former is a far more enjoyable kind of living.
Have you ever gotten into a situation that seems to have no way out, absent a choice to lie to someone? If you have a heartbeat, chances are you know what I am talking about. There could be any number of reasons to lie to someone. You might not think they could handle the truth, A Few Good Men-style. You might not want to hurt this person’s feelings. You might think that life would be smoother for everyone if you just massaged the truth a bit. In some cases we might offer little white lies to grease the wheel, but sometimes the deceits are grander.
It is indeed a seductive idea. How many times have I lied to the people I loved and did not love so much in the past (though perhaps not in the recent past)? There always seems to be a good reason to do it. And when we do lie, unless we are new at it or completely inept, we generally ‘get away with it.’ The spouse is appeased with the story that the frilly underwear belongs to your mother and came back with the baby’s laundry, the parent is unaware of their child’s midnight gallivanting, the Girl Guides at the door indeed buy the story that you had just bought a box of cookies the day before. More ‘defensible’ is lying to one’s enemies, people who hold power over you and who seem like they would screw you over given half a chance.
And yet, the fact of the lie remains. Sometimes the lie is found out – this is fodder for umpteen situational comedies and movies over the past decades. You know the story – the protagonist lies, and then lies again, and then again, and again, until it finally all bubbles over and the web of deception comes crashing down with awkward results. Served up a helping of humble pie, a lesson is learned and the protagonist returns to a life of honesty.
If you give the interconnectedness of nature short shrift, it would be easy to simply dismiss this kind of a lesson as mere entertainment. A good story, perhaps, but nothing more. Certainly not something that is instructive on how to live a life well. Lies are necessary to society, they keep things running smoothly. Hell, our leaders our some of the most dishonest folk – the politician-as-liar is a trope as old as the hills (and certainly alive and well today). Truth in advertising is a pipe dream in some circles, and we have our richest citizens hiding money offshore to avoid contributing to the society in which they live. We might despise them for it, but they are in power and look at their material lives – they have certainly made something of themselves! Deceit makes winners.
Well. If one looks at life in such a negative light, I would wager that this person’s barometer, compass, and true north are all kinds of messed up. I am not judging. I have been there. I thought that way in my early years. But experience has taught me that there is most certainly a better way, one that does not view other people as separate from me. Where I used to see another being, I now see a mirror reflecting light back at me.
Ram Dass said that spiritual practice is about ‘polishing the mirror.’ In this metaphor, the mirror is ourselves. Essentially, we want to make the mirror of our beings reflect the light as best we can, so instead of meeting darkness and returning it to its sender, we take the darkness and return what is really being cast: light. As far as I can tell, that is the best we can hope for – kindness and love, for everyone. People have their own demons to battle and paths to walk, but if we can avoid adding to that misery and instead be a conduit of joy, well, that is a win.
But how do we polish the mirror? We have to become wise. The root of wisdom, expressed in so many ways across so many religions and spiritual traditions, can be boiled down to this: unity is the truth and separation is a lie. That is the basis for every bit of self-understanding, if you read the world as metaphor, which is how it was meant to be read. Lying is separation. It is inherent in the concept. In order to lie to another, we have to believe that there is ‘someone else’ to deceive. Our realities respond to our beliefs, to our perspectives. If this was not the case, therapists and religious figures the world over would be out of their jobs. I look at it this way: if unity is the truth and separation is a lie, when I lie to the world I am lying to myself. And if wisdom is the goal, then I will never get wise as long as I continue to feed myself deception. Like a math equation, garbage in, garbage out. Conversely, you can use telling the truth as a way of becoming wise. You tell someone else the truth, especially when it seems like you are sacrificing much by doing so, and watch as nuggets of wisdom will pop up in your own experience of life.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that this is effective. The more difficult it seems to be honest, the greater the reward of wisdom when we are courageous enough to tell the truth. Now, I want to make sure that we are on the same page about this: telling the truth does not mean emphasizing harsh facts in order to hurt someone. How many times have I seen or heard stuff that boils down to, ‘I won’t be kind, I will be honest.’ If you are using the truth as a weapon, something that will damage another person and your motivation is selfish, you are enforcing separation. There is always the choice to remain silent, and sometimes that is what the situation requires. There is a subtlety to this, like most spiritual practices.
Luckily, there is a compass, deep within our being. It will show us the way, if we learn to listen. How we learn to listen is different for every person, but listening is itself wisdom manifest. Listening and acting in accordance with your nature is the water of life that fills the Holy Grail, a delicious nectar available to everyone at every moment of their lives. This draught is the knowledge of unity, the sense of being part of the choir of creation rather than a discordant misanthrope muttering his own tune and getting his arse tanned by the universe for his hard-headedness (yes, I can relate to that one from experience as well).
Lying or telling the truth is sacrosanct, in a way, because it is one of the purest forms of free will that exists. We have the free will to do whatever we want in our lives, and those choices are the stuff from which the story of our lives unfolds. But the choice between building a shed on the weekend or playing a video game does not involve the same stakes as making a choice about whether we attempt to deceive another human being or not. When we lie, we are making a choice to dishonour ourselves and the other person. When we tell the truth, especially when it is difficult, that is when our integrity is tested. We have to choose between courage and cowardice.
Is it really any surprise that the most despicable villains in our stories are mealy-mouthed weasels whose craven tendencies and propensities for falsehoods make them difficult to watch? Hell, just thinking about a character named Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings definitely drums up that kind of imagery. This guy is working for the enemy of life indirectly, as stooge to Saruman who is in turn the thrall of Sauron, the big bad. And yet, he demonstrates that he is not completely without merit. He does what he does for love. He is in love with Eowyn, princess of Rohan, but rather than be forthright about his intentions and prepare himself for rejection if that is the way things play out, he chooses the dark path of deceit and corruption in order to bend her to his will (Saruman promised to deliver her to him in exchange for his service - a sex slave, essentially). Eowyn is understandably sickened by him. Suffice it to say that things do not go well for Wormtongue as the story plays out.
Certainly, this is an extreme example of the cost of deceit. But mythology has a purpose in leading people back to themselves. There is no question that the takeaway from this and from many other stories that deal with deception is the idea that it is not worth whatever benefit you think you might gain from lying. What is rewarded in our stories instead is sacrifice of the perceived value of deception.
Sacrifice means to make sacred. But what are we making sacred? Ourselves.
Think about what we are doing when we lie to others. Generally, it is for some kind of self-interest. We lie to people in order to make something cost less, we lie to avoid negative reactions, we lie to avoid the consequences of our actions. We are placing the notion of our separated self ahead of the idea of unity. If we value honour over dishonour, if we place the sanctity of the truth – of unity – above whatever we expect will await us for doing so, we are exchanging ideas. We are letting go of the separated idea of self and trusting in the unity of the world. And if you are pure of heart – if your intentions are indeed legitimate – that trust is rewarded.
Let me reiterate: making this choice is not easy, especially when the stakes are high. But when the stakes are high, isn’t that exactly when the difficult decision needs to be made? If we cannot cleave to integrity when it matters the most, what value does it even hold? You either have integrity or you don’t, and you can lose it in a moment by giving into your fearful urges. It has happened to me, time and time again in the past.
But I eventually made ‘the’ choice, the one that saw me reclaim my integrity. It was a choice to always tell the truth, no matter what the perceived cost. And instead of finding annihilation, I found peace. Instead of a desecration, the desert bloomed. Instead of poverty in the material world, I became wealthy in my surroundings and my soul. And guess what? It wasn’t because I ‘earned’ anything. It was because I simply remembered who I am. Who we all are. Because I wagered on the idea that there was something more to life. This is within each and every one of us to discover. All you have to do is bet on unity, that if you jump you will not fall. They say, ‘the truth will set you free,’ but I would clarify that a bit.
The courage to tell the truth, always: this will set you free.