When is a lie acceptable and when is it not?
This past Saturday, I took my son Josh to a child’s birthday party. There, I mentioned to a woman, who used to be his foster mother, that I was taking him to see Justice League on Sunday, but I was worried about the age restriction. He’s nine years old until next April and the age restriction is 10. (As it happened, they didn’t check so my worry was for nothing.) “Just lie”, she said.
Here’s the thing… Around the end of 2010, when I was nine months clean for the first time, just a day before we were supposed to get Josh back, my ex ran away back to Cape Town and used meth. I fell apart emotionally. We didn’t get him back, and having realized that she had used and regretted it, I convinced her over the phone to stop, stay clean for a week and then return to Johannesburg at my expense, where she would test negative for a drug test.
They realized that I’d lied, and so his foster mother, her husband at the time (my brother) and a rehab counselor, sat me down and gave me a long lecture about lies. All lies are wrong, and it was unacceptable that I lied, at all. It wasn’t even so much about what I’d lied about – it was that I’d lied at all, and they made it a big deal. Nobody other than myself saw the irony, that this story of all lies being unacceptable was itself a lie. We didn’t get Josh back, and then I did relapse too, and used meth for nearly another three years.
So hearing her encourage me to lie on Saturday felt a little strange. I’m not complaining. It means she trusts me nowadays. But still, she doesn’t seem to be aware of the double standard. In retrospect, my behaviour back then was to be expected. I lied in defense, an act of self preservation. I was on the verge of suicide, having had my girlfriend run away and after looking forward and planning to get my son back for months, being told that couldn’t happen. Suddenly I couldn’t get him back and they did not see that this was more traumatic than Megan running away herself. I was punished for it, not only for lying but for being human, for reacting the way I reacted even though it was totally normal. They contacted Child Welfare and what had been a private arrangement became formalized foster care, which took years to be removed.
There are other times when lies confuse me… Twice recently, I have been accused of lying by someone at work, in front of the whole office, when I was telling the truth. That was insulting and hurtful. I have to assume that it was about the way that I said what I said, and give the person the benefit of the doubt rather than consider alternative explanations for why he might have thought I was lying.
I haven’t lied about anything for years, but of course when I think about it, there are situations when I would be comfortable telling lies. Imagine an employer who has no respect for boundaries, who believes that just because he is entitled to intrude on you at work (which he is), that he is equally entitled to intrude on you at home in your personal time, and imagine that this employer asked you prying questions about what you do with that personal time. (It doesn’t happen where I work and this is only an example.) In that case, I would lie and feel that it was not only acceptable but also the best course of action. Telling a story then would certainly be better than saying , “It’s personal” or “none of your business”.
But did you see what I did there? I justified why it is acceptable for me to lie. This is important – we all do that. All of us, without exception. We all lie. Our own lies are acceptable. But when we catch other people lying, it means something. It might mean they are not good people. It might mean they cannot be trusted. But it doesn’t mean that about ourselves.
Lies are about survival and self preservation. An addict’s lies are just the same because they believe their drugs are necessary for their survival. The attachment of drugs to survival is a mistaken one and it shows something going wrong in the mind of the addict, but it is no more an act of deceit than the other examples of lies I have given. It doesn’t make them any less trustworthy than anyone else, when we all lie for the same reasons anyway. But this does leave me confused as to when lies are acceptable and when they are not. So I try to always tell the truth. It’s been working for a few years now, but there have also been times when the truth gets me into trouble. We don’t necessarily want the truth. We want to hear what we’d like to be true, yet we judge those whose lies we dislike, not necessarily because they aren’t true.