Diogenes goes looking for an honest lawyer. A week into his search, he runs into a friend, who asks him how the quest is going. “Not bad,” replies Diogenes, “I still have my lantern.”
This chestnut earned me $100 when I sold it to Playboy magazine 40 years ago. It’s a somewhat oblique way to launch into a piece about truth and lying, but I like the joke. (And would that tale-telling were limited to attorneys, but it’s not, so I promise this is the only time I’ll mention them in this piece.)
Lying is not telling the truth. This simple definition covers an awesome amount of turf: making political promises that cannot be kept, convincing a blind date that you’re a thoracic surgeon (unless you actually are), committing Madoff-class hornswoggling, telling kids there’s a Santa Claus, employing situational ethics (remember those?) and assuring a wife that the barber didn’t butcher her hair when she looks like she’s wearing a helmet made out of kimchi. Quite the gamut, and I didn’t even dip into the biggest category of all, the lies we tell ourselves.
Obviously, it’s not possible always to tell the truth, but when is lying all right? I’ll focus here on two of the more interesting classes of prevarication, one clean and simple and the other more challenging.
There are times when the truth should go untold, for example to avoid needless cruelty. Enter the white lie. There’s nothing to be gained by my telling my Alzheimer’s-plagued stepmother that she’s not in Italy, where she contentedly thinks she is, but rather in a nursing home in Golden Valley, where she actually is. Here, honesty runs the risk of devastation.
That example is a no-brainer, but white lies are often nuanced and when nuance comes knocking, things get trickier. As a youth, I studied classical guitar with a man who had no tact at all. He was unflinchingly and thoroughly honest, and the result was mean and counterproductive. He was a lousy teacher and an unhappy man who ended up committing suicide (and no, it wasn’t because he had me as a student).
Fifty years on, as a guitar teacher myself, my students pay a dollar a minute for my expertise. I owe them my honesty, but there’s more than one way to skin that cat. I learned a lot from my poor ex-teacher about how not to teach, and thus a lot about how to teach. This is stuff any experienced pedagog knows: accentuate the positive and, through patient corrective instruction, eliminate the negative.
This is usually easy; my guitar students generally get things mostly right, so I am able honestly to say, for example, “That’s great! Nice quality strums and good bass notes.” Then I’ll add, “Now, let’s look a little closer at your solo.” I prioritize the corrective issues—pick my battles—to move the student forward in a way that satisfies them. They don’t need to be Eric Clapton to enjoy playing the guitar, they just need to feel like him. In short, it’s neither necessary nor advisable to say everything you’re thinking, and there are nice ways to offer corrective criticism without having to lie.
More complicated and insidious is what I call the lie of convenience. What if a friend calls and says they’ve got an extra ticket to a Beyonce concert? I don’t care for Beyonce, and it’s easy to say that I’ve got other plans, and, wham, before I know it, I’ve told an outright lie there was no need to tell. I could have said, “Thanks much for the invite but, as talented as she is [no lie there], Beyonce is just not my cup of tea,” and thus, with a bit more effort and care, a lie could have gone untold. (And besides, what’s to keep the friend from calling next year with another Beyonce ticket?)
It’s these pure-bred lies of convenience that I try very hard not to tell. They are self-serving and lazy, whereas the truth, carefully phrased, is cleaner and better but involves more work.
Things get more complicated when white lies commingle with lies of convenience. It’s easy to fend off an unwanted barbecue invitation from your insufferable Uncle Charlie by claiming a prior commitment. This is part white lie and part lie of convenience. I mean, you don’t want to hurt Charlie’s feelings, but you’d rather eat krill with penguins than his ribs with him and this gets you out of the commitment, for now at least. This is a fictional scenario—I have no doubt that you like Uncle Charlie and his ribs are actually pretty good if you slather enough sauce on them—but it points up how easily motives can get jumbled in this tricky terrain.
So, the takeaway is: Try not to hurt people’s feelings, but don’t buffalo them. Try to catch yourself telling the lazy lie of convenience before you tell it. If there’s hard truth to be told, do so lovingly and carefully. Oh, and don’t forget to take a look at those lies you tell yourself.
Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and dog, Molly, and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.