Montaigne doesn’t lie, because, as he relates in his ninth essay, he’s got a bad memory and it would be too hard to remember what story he’s told once it veers from what actually happened. But he does grant that a bad memory might lead to honest mistakes: a person might truly believe something because it was misremembered , and swear a solemn oath as to its veracity.
Montaigne considers this an untruth as opposed to a lie, which is a deliberate falsehood. Which is worse. Much worse. In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes .
I like to think of myself as at least as honest as Montaigne says he is. When people ask me questions whose answers might make them unhappy or uncomfortable, I play it straight, diplomatically when possible, but honestly. Because sooner or later truth comes out and it’s worse. But I am an unrepentant, habitual storyteller, and what’s a story but a varnished version of whatever is passing as truth?
Unfortunately sometimes people believe the stories you tell — even when you think they are so absurd you expect them to recognize the element of fiction — and when they find out you were making them up, they consider that lying and subsequently regard you with richly deserved suspicion. I learned this from the two women in my life who will never lie to me, no matter how painful the truth turns out to be.
I once convinced my sister, 7 years my junior, that a giving bird came to my window every night to bring me things, because she saw a blouse that my aunt had given me when we visited and wanted to know where it came from and the truth was too blah. She wanted to know why the bird didn’t come to her and I told her it was because she didn’t believe in it hard enough. Eventually she realized I was lying because she KNEW she couldn’t believe in the wishing bird any harder, and I had no story prepared for that eventuality. She was angry and disappointed and I felt bad. As though I had removed the possibility of magic from the world, not added to it as I meant to.
I also once told my daughter that my father had wanted to teach me and my sister that life was hard, and so built a spinning table, and that we had to eat as fast as we could before the table stopped spinning- this in response to her question as to why I ate so rapidly. Her response to me upon finding out from my father that he had done no such thing, was to chastise me- “You’re my mother, you should be teaching me that people are good, not that they lie.” I pretty much stopped deliberately lying after that.
Under the category of poetic justice, I believe just about everything my husband tells me if he can manage to suppress the dimple that shows when he is telling a lie. Here some whoppers of his that I have, unbelievably, believed
-That the Hans Bethe, a Nobel Laureate who was on the faculty of Cornell, went around wearing his medal on a sash around his neck
-That there was a holiday in Albany called Commissioner’s Birthday, when school children were given the day off to celebrate the birthday of the State Commission of Education
·-That Napoleon’s Tomb had a crack in it and was leaking a yellow ooze.
· That on his first semester of work at PSU, he was sent an email criticizing his choice of shirt, light pink, with instructions to go to HR website on appropriate dress and click on the “looking sharp hot button” He let me get as far as composing an indignant complaint to the president of the university before he fessed up.
But if you are going to tell a lie- and unlike Montaigne, I do believe that sometimes they are warranted, here’s what you need.
· A goal
· Obstacles preventing your from reaching that goal
· A sincere conviction that honesty will not remove the obstacle
· Another conviction, just as sincere, that a higher purpose will be served by telling a lie
· A poker face
· A poker conscience
· A story that hews closely to the truth, veering only when necessary
· A memory that allows you to remember when you’ve veered
· Co-conspirators, the fewer the better. .
· A back up plan for when the lie is revealed
· A back up plan for the eventuality that the lie is NEVER revealed
For example, sneaking out for an evening requires minimal ingenuity, and one cooperative friend. Spending an entire college semester shacking up with your boyfriend in his dorm at an all male school in New England while employed as a waitress in a greasy spoon diner, while your parents believe you are taking a full load of courses, and paying your room and board in a school in the Midwest, requires somewhat more. Lying on that order of magnitude is not recommended for those prone to guilt attacks or second guessing or self pity if caught. Montaigne might have appreciated all the effort that went into that romantic escapade, him being French and all. And we weren’t caught, not really. When my grades came in, I had to explain how it was only 10 credits and a C average — pretty amazing considering- but I was already out of the house, and on my way to a married life. My mother was more upset that I didn’t have a traditional wedding, about which we had an extremely honest disagreement. She would have much preferred a lie on my part if it meant I would have gone along with her plans.
I have learned, when telling a story, to be sure my audience realizes it is a story at the outset. I outgrew any joy I once had in fooling people into believing fictions to be fact. And I have no time for adults who lie to me, deliberate dishonesty is a deal breaker, and also remarkably rare. It just doesn’t come up in my day to day dealings with peers. I can break down young liars, I’ve done that more than once as a teacher and a parent. The key to that is knowing the truth that the child is concealing and accepting nothing less. However, now that my own children are adults, they have confessed some things they got away with as kids Do I love them less? Of course not. Do I expect them to be honest with me now that they are adults? Yes. And I believe that they are. Although I expect that they have conversations about their parents that they don’t share. And I know enough not to ask.
So I do agree with Montaigne — Lying corrodes the bonds of trust that we must maintain with one another in both the public and the personal realms. Youth is a time of learning, so I’ll give some quarter there, to myself and to the children for whom I have some responsibility. But peers and public figures I hold to a higher standard and expect honesty, as idealistic as that may be to require of politicians, journalists and even, yes, non fiction essayists.