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Lions Roar : March 2014
hardly criminal lies, or at least they were never prosecuted as such. They were simply the distortions fashioned by commercial and corporate self-interest—white-collar lies. But even ordinary, everyday lies can accumulate into unbearable discomfort and shame, at least until you’ve scraped the bullshit from the bottom of your shoes. The tao that can be told Is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named Is not the eternal Name. —Tao Te Ching The Ta o had given me a hint of a larger truth, one that couldn’t be manipulated with words, knowledge, or artifice. It sounded like a benevolent rock bottom you hit when all your make-believe has shattered, when your heart breaks and your head spins, when hope dies and strategies fail, as they will, because trading in lies leads to no good. It ends in long nights at wit’s end wandering an empty house, an eye cocked open to find the way out. Why do we lie? We lie to serve ourselves. That much is obvious. Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, has written another provocative book—an essay, to be honest— examining the art and ethics of the dodge. His timing is propitious. Living in samsara, the egocentric world of suffering, we are con- tinuously misled, deceived, and exploited. But it sure seems to have gotten worse lately. As a result, we are living in what could be called the age of disbelief. Even if you don’t trust the numbers (and I admit to caution), the num- bers don’t lie. A survey by Pew Research Center in October 2013 found that Americans distrust the federal gov- ernment 80 percent of the time. If you’re looking for an honest face, you’d better hire Tom Hanks. In an annual poll of the most trusted people in Amer- ica, six of the top 10 were movie stars and the eighth was the host of Jeopardy. In a 2012 Gallup survey of honesty and eth- ics in professions, clergy were only half-trusted. A majority of the public has little or no trust in the media. Stockbrokers, ad execs, members of Congress, and car salespeople are crawling at the bottom of the credibility sinkhole. Only nurses, doctors, and pharmacists are as yet untarnished by our cynicism, a sign, perhaps, of our steadfast reliance on medical attention and prescriptions. Lying is disagreeable. If we don’t agree on that, there’s no sense in having a conversation about honesty. But Harris wants to prod us beyond easy ethics and into inconvenient territory. He argues that the most egregious lies are the liver-bellied ones we tell to save ourselves from momentary distress. “Lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal rela- tionships and public trust,” he writes. “My daughter will be absent due to illness,” I say to the atten- dance secretary at the school office. “As it turns out, we have other plans that night,” I reply to the unwanted invitation. “Not really,” I answer my husband, who has pricked my icy silence by asking, “Are you mad at me or something?” None of those statements was completely true, but were they wrong? “To lie is to recoil from relationship,” Harris writes. “A will- ingness to be honest—especially about things that one might be expected to conceal—often leads to much more gratifying exchanges with other human beings.” As evidence, he cites the time an unsuspecting friend asked whether Harris thought he was overweight: In fact, he was probably just asking for reassurance: It was the begin- ning of summer, and we were sitting with our wives by the side of his pool. However, I’m more comfortable relying on the words that actually come out of a person’s mouth rather than on my powers of telepathy. So I answered my friend’s question very directly: “No one would ever call you fat, but if I were you, I’d want to lose twenty-five pounds.” That was two months ago, and he is now fifteen pounds lighter. Neither of us knew that he was ready to go on a diet until I declined the opportunity to lie about how he looked in a bath- ing suit. Harris deals dispassionately with issues that are troubling for most of us. To his thinking, if you tell a woman That dress makes you look fat, it allows her to choose a more flattering fit. When you admit to your friend, the struggling actor, that he’s really a bad actor, it liberates him to find a more productive life purpose. And when you break the news to a friend that her husband is having an affair, it rescues the victim, saves a friendship, and relieves you from the burden of keeping a secret. Reading this blend of simple logic, good intentions, and best-case scenarios, I arrived at a different view of the matter. Just because you’re no longer deceiving someone else doesn’t mean you’re not deceiving yourself. Whenever I think I know what someone needs or wants, what is good or best for them— wagering how things are going to turn out—it’s a good time to shut up. An untroubled mind, No longer seeking to consider What is right and what is wrong, A mind beyond judgments, Watches and understands. —The Dhammapada ➢ page 74 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2014 72