Brian Williams, the highly respected national news anchor has been ridiculed for a lie he told regarding being in a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire. Williams did lie—he was actually in a group of helicopters and one of the choppers from the group ahead of his was hit. So a helicopter in his mission of of helicopters was hit, but even then, each grouping wasn’t necessarily close to each other.
The details don’t really matter because those will all have come from interviews with witnesses and they’ll be as flawed as Mr. William’s version. Because there’s actually nothing strange about what Williams did. You’ve done it all your life and so has everyone around you. Remember, I’m that weird kid who was laying in a hospital bed after a massive brain injury and my only entertainment was watching adults have conversations over my brain-damaged body. The most useful part was that they always spoke as though they were the only two people in the room. So by the time I had left that hospital I could figure out that a) the point of life was to have as many rewarding and enjoyable moments as possible before we die, and b) that people lied a huge percentage of the time.
These aren’t conscious lies. Those are pretty rare. Those are the ones people start counting. But all of these other ones are lies too. Which is why researchers apparently said adults lie a lot. Of course, those researchers and their participants have no way of knowing that other lies are permeated into the person’s identity, and so to me the number is still way too low.
There are two main reasons that people are comfortable slipping adaptations into their personal narratives. The first is that you don’t even notice you do it because you’re usually just solving an immediate problem. As a friend said, “My resume says ‘responsible for department payroll.’ The truth is I blindly sign time-sheets at the end of every week.” Time proves that some of those stories snowball out of control, but they are useful enough that they still get told. The second reason is that your highest self knows that you are not actually separate from anyone (or anything). So the more enlightened you become the less your own identity weighs. Empathy becomes so profound that it almost becomes a form of transference, where you literally feel a part of the other person’s experience. So later, you can easily describe it as something that has happened to you and nothing will signal you to the fact that you lied because you will have travelled through a legitimate experience you really did have.
Our memories are much more flexible than we realize. As we recall them, just as when we first had them, they will be influenced by our current context and our mood. I know you like to think you don’t lie that much—but most of these are so embedded into your life that even you’ve forgotten you’ve invented them. But if you could find them all and if you witness them being built, you’d be forgiving of yourself. Because you usually lie to be kind or to tell a larger truth. But yes, there are those times where you’ll feel insecure and you’ll elevate. You’ll simply rewrite yourself to seem better or worse because you’re feeling as though you’re doing poorly in some comparison.
For all we know the adjustment to William’s story may have been made during a macho conversation between journalists, and it happened on a day where Williams wasn’t feeling secure and so this story got this minor inflation—which was to take some details away in fact. It would have been very easy to phrase as a completely true statement that he could be almost certain would be misinterpreted. And it was to solve an insecurity problem today. But then someone overhears it and re-tells it and now it’s awkward to undo it so Williams doesn’t peddle the lie but it spreads nevertheless. Then he hears people assume it and makes use of it on another insecure night and a gentle creeping motion happens until this event gets assimilated into his original memory and even he believes it to be true when he says it. But, you stop and ask him if it’s true and he goes and looks at the memory in detail, that can be the first time the person even realizes the story isn’t true.
You’ll think you don’t do this because you’re not a braggart. But there are many reasons to lie. Avoiding responsibility would be a huge reason, but we also live in a victim society, and so there’s probably far more lies told about how badly someone’s doing rather than how good. People will torque their stories to elicit more sympathy so you’ll invest more of your time and attention on them (these are the two most valuable things in society in the new millennium). But people will also lie for you.
They will change what party an event took place at because you weren’t invited to the other party and if t hey tell that story you’ll be hurt and ask why you weren’t invited. Or you’ll tell them you like a haircut you don’t. Or maybe you’ll use one thing to communicate another. This blog is a hybrid between numerous true stories, and the reason they are melded is because they most effectively help communicate the important underlying theme I’m attempting to convey. And so I collect a bunch of true things and I reassemble them in a way that never happened as a way of more finely pointing to the truth of what did happen in all three melded stories. Make sense?
A good example of a daily sort of lie that people tell very often is like a line from my last film, The Pharmacist. The main character’s best friend is helping him get over a decade of no dating by setting him up with her equally nice friends for some blind dates. Every girl asks when his last relationship was and she says “six months ago,” which is 9.5 years too few, but when you see the film you realize that to say 10 years would give the women the wrong impression of him, whereas the lie actually communicates more of who he really is. So in essence she lied to tell the truth because she understood that her friend’s underlying question wasn’t how long has been single? It was: is there some reason people aren’t dating this supposedly great guy?
As a kid I got to use this weird ability that came as a fluke from my accident, and ultimately what came of it was an ability to see through people. And that in turn made me even more compassionate. Because I did realize that people rarely lied to elevate themselves. They almost always did it to protect themselves, elevate someone else, to cover up a mistake they thought would be painful to own, or just as a social lubricant. Bottom line, even the sweetest lady at your church has told you tons of lies. I’ve been contacted by people who’ve informed me that their doctor presented a blog of mine as his personal experience, or that a corporate trainer did likewise. I’ve had priests claim their sermon was based on their life when my readers knew it was from my blog. Yes, sometimes you need to act on these things, but most times don’t let their lie bother you, because you’re being told them all day long by your employer, your kids, your parents, your friends and even strangers. Maybe even moreso for strangers because they have more freedom when you don’t know anything about them. So relax. During your lifetime some big lies will be exposed and you’ll feel silly or even stupid, but even then, you’ll eventually get old enough that you realize there’s a wisdom in aging that helps you become more accepting simply because you’ve seen more things and you really do realize much of what you believed in your life ultimately wasn’t true.
People often have excellent reasons to lie and it is only because we have invented the word truth that people presume that’s what we’re doing all the time. We’ve made honesty equal good and lying equal bad, but that would be a mistake because human interactions have never been that cut and dried and there are many times where a lie did far more good than the truth ever would have. That said it’s important to also note that intentional lies for personal gain will often have brutal and horrible consequences and these should be avoided at all costs.
Don’t get so worked up about people’s flexibility with the truth. It’s hypocritical on your part, but even more importantly it steals time away from you discussing things that feel good. And that is a far better use of your consciousness than you being a policeman for everyone else. So try to be more forgiving. Life is complicated and no one gets out without some scars. But that does not have to stop you from having an awesome day, so with that I will let you get to it. Enjoy. 🙂
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.