Bearing False Witness

Bearing False Witness

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.

~Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

My father’s family is a long line of yarn-spinners. They love good stories, funny stories, and thoughtful verbal communication. A big part of my verbal aesthetic comes from my paternal grandfather’s humor and good cheer. Many of my strongest memories of my childhood include him.

Growing up I never worried much about whether the stories that family members told were correct in an empirical sense. If it was a good story, I wanted to hear it. If it was only partially true, embellished for effect or humor, I was okay with that. I still don’t consider it a vice if those around me embellish their stories, exaggerate, or just imagine. What I now concern myself with, though, is whether what comes out of my own mouth is completely truthful.

I have experienced K-12 education in this country as a student, a teacher, and a researcher. I have come to believe that the primary model of schooling used in America both teaches and incentivizes lying. As a student, I knew to make excuses. It seemed easier on the teachers and those around me. As a teacher, I had students blatantly and obviously lie to me. Parents also blatantly and shamelessly lied regularly. I saw it as a researcher, as well. Higher education teaching and research has its own temptations toward exaggeration and lies.

Many of these lies seem to be intended to smooth things out. Many of them seem to be there to protect someone’s feelings or to avoid the work involved in addressing troublesome issues. I understand the temptation. It can seem easier to ignore problems than to address them, especially in an industrial type setting like education. Ignoring problems never makes them go away. It generally only exacerbates them.

A loved one has told me regularly about how his mother believed fervently in the “white lie”. She thought if someone asked if she liked their new haircut or outfit, she should tell them how pretty they looked, regardless of the truth of the matter. Without for a moment questioning the virtue of the woman holding that viewpoint, I humbly disagree. Although she could do a creditable job distinguishing between “lies that don’t hurt anybody,” and malevolent lying that destroys relationships and cultures, most of us cannot. At the very least every “white lie” places the liar in a near occasion of sin. Keeping strictly to the truth is the best way to prevent kindly dishonesty from creeping into selfish dishonesty. 

Every lie has consequences. If I tell someone they look good in something that in fact makes them look less attractive, they might lose a job opportunity going to an interview in something unflattering. If their hair stylist gave them an unflattering look, they should consider finding another barber. But even if there were not a single temporal consequence to such a white lie, I don’t think we should say it anyway. Any time we ask our brains and verbal abilities to say things that aren’t true, we invite our brains and verbal abilities to consider that as one of the ongoing options. It shouldn’t be.

The lying that begins in elementary school tends to dog us throughout life if we aren’t careful. I’ve always told my children that dating is terrible, but marriage is great. Part of why dating is terrible is that people are prone to exaggerate to make ourselves look better to people we’re trying to impress. It is easy to be fooled by this, especially among people we are attracted to, and especially when our biological clocks are ticking.

Alexander Soljenytzin famously said, “We know that they are lying, they know that they are lying, they even know that we know they are lying, we also know that they know we know they are lying too, they of course know that we certainly know they know we know they are lying too as well, but they are still lying. In our country, the lie has become not just a moral category, but the pillar industry of this country.” With our 24/7 news media, constant political chattering, and music blaring absolutely everywhere when we leave the house, we are surrounded by auditory language nearly at all times. Anyone who’s paid even slight attention knows that much of what is reported as news isn’t true. We know that most modern music emotionally manipulates us in ways that are not healthy, and is a kind of lying. We know that our politicians lie to us constantly, and many of them are not even intelligent enough to know that we notice. They may also be lying to themselves quite effectively.

This constant backdrop of language gives rise to many problems. One such problem is the unease with quiet that so many suffer from. Few people are willing to have a pause in their conversations to think about what they are going to say. So they just say what bubbles up as it bubbles up. They don’t think about how to be clear, how to be completely honest, or how they will sound to the hearer.

When we do think about it, often we are disincentivized from telling the truth. We’ve seen this as research in many areas has been discredited. Professors are certainly incentivized to exaggerate findings or only to find things that are acceptable to the review committee. Over 1,000 research papers were retracted in 2023. We see it when we go to buy used cars or other equipment. Used car salesmen might say that they need to lie in order to be competitive in their business. Nearly all job categories will likely have some temptation toward exaggeration or outright lying. The temporal problem with all this lying is that it breaks our bonds of trust, and if we cannot trust one another, we cannot really know and love each other. The spiritual problem is that lying is one of the big 10, and breaking any of those is an affront against God. We’ll deal with the lesser problem first.

Life is better when we can trust one another. I know that my husband will always tell me the truth. So if I want him to tell me how I look, I ask. If I want a compliment, I ask for that. I know if I ask for a compliment even if I’m wearing something dumpy, he will still compliment me – just not about my outfit. We must take care in what we ask for as well as what we answer. He can trust me to ask for what I need because when I’m honest with myself I can ask correctly. If I’m not honest with myself I can be manipulative, selfish, immature, and basically any terrible thing that takes me further from God. So let’s not do that.

The primary issue, though, is that lying is an affront against God. In four simple words He told us everything we need to know about this issue.  

            Thou shalt not lie.

He didn’t mention lying to people we don’t like; those we’re afraid of; or those who hold sway in our lives. The incessant argument about whether as Catholics we could lie to the Nazis really doesn’t interest me. Have you ever met anyone whose issue with this commandment had anything to do with those kinds of stakes? I haven’t, and I’ve known some pretty consistent liars in my life. I was one in some parts of my life when I was younger. I didn’t see the harm in spinning yarns. If I could make a story more compelling, more interesting, or especially make myself look better, what was the harm?

The harm is always in harming our relationship with God. After a particularly meaningful homily from an FSSP priest, I realized that I must never commit this sin again, under any conditions. I even went back and told some people about some of the previous things I had said that weren’t true. It was painful and humiliating, and very good for me.

Catholics do the best we can. I truly believe that most of us are trying to do our best with the knowledge we have. It’s just that our catechesis hasn’t been robust for quite a while. Once I knew better about lying, I tried to do better. May God grant us the grace to see our vices and correct them in time.

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Written by
Jennifer Borek