Speaking of lies

I try to listen when the universe at large brings up points for me to consider. A few weeks ago, the message I heard was “be comforting.” I was actually told no fewer than three times, by three entirely different people—a student with twitchy senioritis, a transgender woman on the edge, and a professional who is having difficulty with a superior—that my words to them were comforting. These conversations happened in the midst of the anguishing last stages of a woman’s life here in town, a woman about whom I’ve written before and for whom many people have a particular fondness. And as I’ve seen her caretakers looking increasingly exhausted, the concept of what is comforting, when, and for whom have swirled around in my head. We often forget, it seems, to support the caretakers, and they, the front guard, need a lot of comfort themselves.

On another level, we attempt to provide comfort for the terminally ill, in the form of hand-holding and increasingly desperate dosages of opioids. It’s the medical equivalent of building a sea castle. We wring our hands when we fear our efforts aren’t enough, and of course they’re not enough. And so we hope that our well wishes, our prayers, our food offerings—for surely they can’t concentrate on cooking, for God’s sake—will do enough for now. Sometimes hope and a bite of warm supper is all we have.

The message this week, if I’ve got it correctly, is not to lie. Surely this is something my parents and a plethora of clergy attempted to teach me when I was a child. The script back then was simply that lying is wrong, a concept predicated on a young person’s monolithic understanding of morality: you do right just because. You avoid doing wrong just because.

What I see about lies now, on the cusp of my fourth decade, is the devastation in their wake, like the wrecked ideals of a partner who has put such effort into someone he then realizes doesn’t have his best interest at heart. Or the sudden calamity that avalanches down on a person who gets laid off after disingenuous promises from her boss that she can trust him. It’s not the lies themselves, necessarily, that are wrong, because who really wants to hear that they look awful in their favorite pair of trousers, it’s the shock wave from the lies and the intent in the heart of the liar that we want to avoid.

In an online writing chat today there was much discussion about lying in fiction. Yes, I know, it’s fiction. I think “lie” stood in, on several occasions, for “believability.” It does raise an interesting question to me. We’re so quick as readers to spot flaws in what makes a story believable or not—we come into a book with cynical expectations and have our guards up for the first sign of trouble. But these are just books. Raise the stakes and talk about people and relationships, ask us to make an investment in what they mean to us, and we become myopic, willing to believe even preposterous tales just to keep our vision of reality stable. And then we lose, bit by bit, our own sense of well-being and comfort, because while we may not want to admit to it, our confidence erodes under the constant swell of those lies.

I am not immune to any of this, and when I was ten, fifteen years younger, I went to lies as a coping strategy, oh sure, I did. I am a storyteller, after all, but I’d lost sight of where make-believe was okay and where it wasn’t. I’ve spent time in the prison camp of cowardice, aligning myself with dominant personalities and then wondering how I could squirm out from under them. Mostly I just figured out how to exist in the cramped space they allowed me, but one of those survival skills was lying. It didn’t even matter after a time what the lie was about, as long as I had something all to myself, a tiny corner of truth about which they didn’t know. These were infinitesimally small victories; stacked all together I could have fit them on the head of a pin, but they were mine, mine, mine, and somehow they were enough, mostly because my dreams were absurdly small.

And then, though they were so tiny, they were numerous, and like the Big Bang that arose out of a submicroscopic particle, they exploded all over me and I had to admit to them and myself what I had been doing. I was a juggler of little lies who had slipped. But it helped me to see what a waste of time all of that nonsense really was. I hadn’t been ready to let go of them, but they left all on their own, and lo and behold, I found new ways to meet people. In fact, I met better people, ones who would never corner me until I found my 5-year-old self’s coping strategy. It was like moving to a house with a dishwasher, me promising never to go back. Who wants to go back to scalding their hands, after all?

I’m inclined toward direct, unwavering truth-telling these days, even as it has sometimes meant making difficult decisions, like oh, turning my life upside-down and living as the opposite gender (and not just so I could write a book about the experience). But it is a life unafraid, at least.

And uh, I take comfort in that.

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Categories: ponderings

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2 Comments on “Speaking of lies”

  1. Karen M
    March 4, 2010 at 3:56 am #

    Heartfelt writing, vivid imagery – and I’m sorry to hear that the lady that you wrote about is not long among us.

  2. evmaroon
    March 4, 2010 at 9:38 am #

    Thank you Karen, on both points. And that kind, smart, wacky lady passed away earlier this week, I’m sad to say. Apparently during one work meeting, many years ago, she, a woman in a very small frame, crawled under the table and announced to everyone in the room that she wasn’t coming back out until she heard anything good enough to warrant it. I can’t believe I never tried that at SSA.

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