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My son makes the worst excuses. He’s five, so I don’t expect a ton of creativity, but as an author, it’s a little depressing he can’t come up with a better story. I feel like I’ve failed him. That doesn’t stop him from trying, though. He’ll just deny everything, no matter how implausible or inconsequential. Here’s a common scenario in our house:
Me: Jackson, did you flush the potty?
Me: Really? I didn’t hear it.
Him: Maybe you weren’t listening
Me: I can see the poop still in the toilet
Him: *runs to flush the potty*
Don’t tell my wife, but I couldn’t care less whether he flushes the potty or not. I’d prefer him to flush, and he usually does, but it’s not exactly a moral imperative. He’ll learn. What I do care about is the impulse to lie, even when it makes no difference, since we don’t punish him for not flushing, even when it’s so obvious and provably untrue. The desire to avoid blame is embedded deep within us. It’s a reflex. I don’t think he does it with malicious or fearful intent. I’m not sure he even realizes he does it. The same thought goes through my head when my wife asks whether I took out the trash or called the doctor to make an appointment or am still bitter about that careless remark. If I don’t consciously make an effort not to, I find myself slipping into all sorts of convenient little lies.
It may not sound like much, but these small lies will eventually change the way you perceive the world. We take in information from all of our sense, but the primary way we understand ourselves and the world around us is through the word. Whether through our internal thoughts or conversations with others or the writing of a diary, we use words to organize our perceptions, set our values, and direct our actions. Our lives, you might say, are a story. The lies we tell ourselves and others distort the basic inputs of our understanding in order to alter the world so that it align with our desires. It changes our story. If we say we already flushed the toilet, and everyone believes it, then we can live like there is no need to get off the couch to do it. That’s why we lie in the first place.
But to keep the lies going, you must avoid thinking or talking about the truth, lest something be required of you. Turn away from anything that may cause slight harm or discomfort or friction and, never facing them, you will forget they even exist. You’ll deny they existed in the first place. With enough practice closing your eyes to the things you don’t like, the duties you don’t want, the pain you don’t think you can bear, you can live in a perfectly smooth and simple and pleasant world. A world entirely of your own imagination.
It’s a big problem. You can think you’re doing fine, living the typical suburban life with a happy wife and a couple of kids and stable job. Then one day you turn around to find the toilet is overflowing, your career is failing, your kids are rebelling, your marriage is crumbling, and your faith is shaken. You wonder where it all went wrong. It went wrong with those small lies, each one a failure to engage with reality. Because you can tell someone you took care of your shit, and maybe everyone, including yourself, will believe you, but that doesn’t make the shit go away.
Don’t lie. You won’t get away with it. Even if no one else ever finds out, you will eventually have to face the thing you lied about. The truth will hound you to the ends of the earth. You can’t get rid of it. It has nowhere else to go. My kid hates brushing his teeth, and I hate forcing him do it. He spits and screams and wiggles and makes it impossible. But pretending it doesn’t matter, while it saves me some nightly hassle, only works up until the moment he goes to the dentist.
The way out is to talk. Specifically, to tell the truth. How often have you been told that communication is the key to marriage? The same is true for your relationship with yourself. If you can’t speak the truth, the whole foundation of your understanding collapses and you will fall into all manner of errors and dangers. Don’t let small lies blind you. Talk openly and honestly with your wife, your kids, and yourself, about the good things and the bad, and demand they do the same. Because not flushing the toilet is a much less serious problem than believing it never must be flushed at all.