A daily journal is a well-respected way of keeping track of your life: the credits and debits, the ins and outs, the wrongs, and the perceived wrongs. But if you really want to know where you’re headed and where you’ve been – keep a daily record of the lies you tell. You may find, sooner than you think, that you’ve already arrived where you were afraid you were going.
Truth and honor are spiritual virtues, but also learnable skills – like a good outside shot in basketball, you can work on them. You only have to practice, and eventually you can be as “good” as anyone else. When you are still young, such reassuring wisdom sounds fine – but as my fortieth birthday approached, it was no longer much of a comfort. A pretty radical reform was called for. The lies project wasn’t just based on my belief that recording my lies would help me stop telling them – it’s also my theory that vices of any kind usually don’t run alone. Dishonesty is often paired, for example, with laziness; and knowing that a lie told today is a lie that has to be written down tonight would discourage me from the really stupid, petty falsehoods.
The result was a thin black notebook, commenced in a spirit of great American optimism: If she kisses you, you’ll turn into a prince…. Save your pennies and you can become a millionaire…. Anybody can grow up to be president….
The following are not my worst lies of the last few years. Those remain confidential. I’ve kept them private, not because they were so terrible – neither professional dishonesty, nor anything having much to do with money, or sex. Quite the opposite. They are secret because they are that kind of agonizingly petty bullshit that most people would be surprised to learn that any adult had bothered to lie about. But here are some of the rest:
October 12, 1995: Two representatives of the Naval Reserve Officer Training program came to my front door to ask for contributions or pledges to a golf tournament benefiting naval reserve officers’ training. The young woman said they were asking for $100. My response was that there is a guy in the building who plays golf and that I will give [the pledge] to him. Lie. Big lie. But feel no guilt. One hundred dollars, no way!
December 12, 1995: Someone gave me a story to read. Did not really understand it or appreciate it, but the author had made clear that he expected praise, so that’s what he got from me.
But he had also given it to someone else to read, and she came over while we were talking. And she felt, also, that it was a confusing piece – but she told the truth. An awkward moment.
Moral: Don’t give my opinion of other people’s writing. Or, tell the truth. (Actually, were my comments really lies or merely an attempt to emphasize the positive?)
January 12, 1996: Another job interview. More recounting in detail of non-existent experience because, apparently, people are hired almost exclusively on experience or education – general ability is valueless. Was asked several questions about past job situations and literally just made up stories one word at a time. It’s scary, but I need a job.
February 2, 1997: People ask me for money. Usually tell them, “Sorry, I don’t have any change.” The fact is, I do have change but don’t want to give it away. Shouldn’t allow others to make a liar out of me. Just say, “Sorry.” Am not really sorry, but at least it’s polite.
April 6, 1997: Began a long discussion about sex with one of my coworkers. Ended by me proposing to [have sex with] her. At one point made up some stories about girl I am doing – all bullshit, designed to make [my coworker] jealous…. All in all, not a very good night for the truth.
September 11, 1997: Backpack was stolen. Cops asked how long it was left unattended. Too embarrassed to say one hour; told them ten minutes.
The black book was well-maintained for two or three years. Every lie was faithfully recorded by my shaky left hand. Sometimes, in an effort to be scientific, a word or two of description was added to each entry, in order to categorize the vices which had led to a particular lie in the first place. One deception might be attributed to “expediency,” another to “stupidity,” and a third to “sex.” The results were not what you might think.
Of the forty-seven entries in which a “cause” was included, only one, in fact, was attributed to expediency, and only one to opportunism. “Sex” followed one entry, and “pussy” another – although the distinction between these two motives is no longer clear to me. “Guilt and fear” also claimed one entry. But there was not a single entry under greed.
There were, however, twenty-seven entries under “vanity.”
The kind of vanity I found myself recording did not involve admiring myself in front of a mirror – although appearance is an important consideration. This vanity is of the biblical variety (cf. Ecclesiastes), through which we become obsessed with how others view us as individuals. After examining my own record of deception, it’s my theory that most of us lie whenever we fear that an outsider’s view of us no longer resembles our own narcissistic view of ourselves.
Politics has given lying a bad name. Most falsehoods, like my own, aren’t really about greed or expediency, or even sex. They’re about maintaining the image we want to project to others.
Lies are about love, even if it is only self-love.
Austin writer Lucius Lomax maintains a reputation for telling the truth, whatever the consequences.
This essay is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.