Jim Taylor

The best policy, and the easiest

Lake Country columnist Jim Taylor talks about the power of truth and why people lie

Here are three words you will never hear anyone say: “I am lying.”

The whole point of lying is to make your hearers believe that they are hearing the truth. Why, then, would you tell them that what they’re hearing is not the truth?

In murder mystery novels and TV shows, witnesses always break down at some point and admit that their previous testimony was less than accurate. “But you have to believe me,” they always say. “I’m telling the truth now.”

Really?

Why should I believe you this time?

Earlier this year, National Geographic magazine did a cover story on lying. According to them, lying may correlate with higher intelligence. Liars have to use their brains harder to keep track of multiple stories – both what’s true and what they have claimed is true.

The story left cause and effect unanswered. Does superior brain power encourage people to lie? Or does lying force the brain to work harder?

I’m inclined towards the latter explanation.

Children between five and seven years old apparently know the difference between the truth and what they want to be the truth. (Some politicians share the same disability.) I didn’t break the vase, kick the cat, scratch the car… because I don’t want to take responsibility for it.

But at some point, those children do make a distinction. Though not as a moral principle, yet. In a self-centred world, lying is a matter of practicality – if lying gets you the result you want, it must be okay. If it gets you into trouble, don’t do it.

I suspect that all teenagers lie. It’s part of the process of individuation, of developing a personality that is not merely a clone of their parents. I certainly lied at times., because I knew my parents wouldn’t approve of some things I had done. Or hadn’t done.

For some reason, one episode sticks in my mind.

I was hitch-hiking to the university campus in Vancouver. I had spent the previous summer working in Kitimat, then a new industrial city being built in northern B.C.

A woman gave me a ride. “Where are you from?” she asked, making casual conversation.

“Kitimat,” I lied.

Why did I lie? I still don’t know. But I knew enough about Kitimat to spin a good story.

In some way, my lies made me feel superior. I knew which story was real; she didn’t. That gave me an invisible advantage.

Fortunately, I never met that woman again. So I didn’t have to keep track of my web of deception to avoid future embarrassment.

At some time in early adulthood, I must have made a decision not to lie. Perhaps I found that lying complicates life too much. Besides, memory is always subject to distortion. It’s hard enough sometimes to remember what really happened, let alone how I described it last time.

Sticking to the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable, makes life much simpler.

Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I don’t understand a situation. Even then, I believe it’s better to be honestly wrong than to try to cover up by pretending to be right.

Honesty is the best policy, says an old maxim. It’s right. Not because honesty is mandated by God, the Bible, or any other authority. Just because it’s easier to live with.

Author Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: rewrite@shaw.ca

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