As long as I can remember, I have always been concerned about consistency. Perhaps it had to do with the mixed messages of my childhood, as tossed from one place to another I had endearments muttered to me that were out of keeping with the reality of my existence. In any event, that blessing or curse has stood by me through the years, frustrating my students who try to plagiarize on their papers and confounding those who, even though they know of my particular foible, still wish for me to relish the cotton candy ball they have spun from lies.
When describing my talent, or disability to others I compare it to a Rolodex, those now-archaic address books which were meant to collect business cards and numbers and make them easy to access. In my case, that’s my memory. When anyone tells me something, quite involuntarily, my minds sifts through the thousand other similar statements they’ve made looking for consistency. I don’t do this to be a jerk. It happens on an instinctual level. Obviously, this would have been a useful survival skill to an insecure child, but for some reason—and perhaps that requires another essay—it still persists. I can hear the fluttering of the cards as the memory is sought after and then the halt of the wheel when it is found. I don’t search for accuracy, or similarity of statement, I search, rather involuntarily, for contradiction.
Unfortunately, I occasionally find what I am looking for. I understand that most of what we say to others is confounded by our own misremembering of the incident, and some of it is deliberately if unconsciously massaged to either promote our view of ourselves or to hide something from another that it would be meaningless to show, but we also knowingly and consciously lie. We know from witness studies that our interpretation of events is suspect, and we know enough to give others the benefit of the doubt when their oft-told tale begins to morph before us. We are also aware that others possess the same fragile ego as ourselves and therefore feel a need to change details in order to appear as something that they—and for them this is tragic—are not.
For instance, my friend liked to tell the story of how he lost his driver’s licence. He had accumulated so many unpaid parking tickets that they finally took away his licence and he received a registered letter to that effect. He signed for the letter using a fake name, cleverly enough, and at the time told me what the letter said. Later, when he was pulled over by local police and fined for driving without a licence, he fought the ticket in court by claiming that he never received the letter. I think we can understand why he would lie about that in court. He was merely saving himself from a fine. It is much more difficult to understand the lying when he would subsequently, and frequently, tell the story, however. For in his need to appear completely and utterly in the right, he would change what happened. His new version made him unaware that he had ever received the letter and therefore was not at fault when the local cop became excited about his licenceless driving, but he strangely kept the use of a fake name when signing for the letter. He wanted the genius of his false signing to be attributed to him, but he was so obsessed with appearing like a person who wouldn’t break the law that he transformed the story of civil disobedience into one that had no internal consistency. Since I’d been present for the event, and even drove him to the courthouse in case they took away his license and he couldn’t drive home, I noticed when he changed the story. But even without inside information, the story is obviously inconsistent. He is asking his listeners to believe that he signed a false name on the letter, thus retaining his cleverness at outwitting the system, but didn’t read it. In the after dinner atmosphere of storytelling, amongst his friends who are quite willing to hero-work their own stories, this rarely becomes a problem, but for anyone who is concerned about trust in relationships, this glaring inconsistency stands out.
A lie to a stranger has, of course, less implications for our non-relationship with them. We will likely never see them again and the burden of our falsehood is on us, for each one of those lies erodes slightly what we are, even to ourselves. If I pretend to limp as I get on the bus in order to secure reserved seating, for instance, the many able-bodied people around me are neither discomforted nor aware of my duplicity. When someone steps aboard the bus who requires the reserve seating more than my assumed injury, I can merely limp aside and to the accolades of the crowd take my ill-gotten position as the hero who gave up his deserved seat. This would take a toll on me, of course, for those presentations of self sink deep into the person and become who we are. For instance, even when I leave the bus, limping away to catch the light, I am aware of what I have done, and that I have rather pointlessly lied about who I am in order to gain an undeserved benefit. I’m sure my friend who lied about his registered letter knew what he was doing and although had made the calculation that the crowd’s attention was worth it, he felt slightly worse about himself. I think we are right in believing that only a true psychopath would feel nothing about constantly lying to make themselves appear as something they are not.
We may compare this to other types of lies. Some people lie in order that their sacrifice not be known and make the recipient of their generosity feel uncomfortable. We may think of those who lie about not having a disability so that they don’t clutter the reserved seating with what they think of as a minor issue. We recognise these types of lies as surrounding us all the time. We can easily imagine the mother who says she’s not hungry so that the child may eat more, the friend who takes the floor so that you may sleep better, and the parent who praises their child’s stick-figure drawings.
Other lies, such as when a child pretends to live at another address in order avoid bullies at school or the prying of the creepy church lady, are also different in kind. We understand the child’s need to protect themselves and immediately excuse the falsehood. When I was hitchhiking as a young teenager I often lied about my name, employing a consistent pseudonym in order to protect myself, although I was unsure of how that exact technique would work.
The lies of those we love, and say they love us, are much more difficult to deal with. We find it impossible to excuse anything more profound than the patently false answer to “Does this dress make me look fat?” or “What do you think others really think of me?” We hold those we love to a higher standard but that is not because we think they are less liable to lie, but rather because our fragile ego is in their unsteady hands. We feel so much more riding on their lie, as if their falsehood could turn our world upside down and shake it so hard that we’d come tumbling out, tears streaming and our world view in shambles.
When someone we love lies to us, it profoundly crumbles the foundation of the relationship. We suddenly question everything they might have said, sorting through their statements like a child looking for rings by sifting the sand on the beach, and by times we find instead the odd turd left by a dog and hastily covered by the person on the other end of the leash.
My consistency Rolodex is particularly pernicious when it comes to my close relationships, and since trust has historically been so important to me, I tend to observe my friendships through that thick, slightly cloudy, fire-resistant glass. Strangely, when someone I care about tells me something I often accept it at face value, since one of the conditions of my relationships is trust. But, when their reporting of the facts becomes fickle, or another part of the Rolodex calls for my attention because they have made a statement that contradicts the facts on file, my ancient skills come into play. I spin rapidly through the files, and some more astute part of my unconscious selects the appropriate utterance so that it may be held up to conscious scrutiny.
Once my conscious mind has pondered both statements, my first reaction is to gather information. Often this erupts as pointed questions about the past. The person who has lied—for people don’t tend to be that great at keeping track of their falsehoods—ponders what exactly I am asking. Once I have the information, I often consult the perpetrator. I believe that everyone should have a chance to defend themselves and it may be that I have grabbed the wrong end of the stick. If my end still remains sticky with deceit after talking to them, then I have learned something about the one I love. I know all people manipulate the easily malleable truth occasionally, but as we know, certain verities should not be tinkered with. Once that line is crossed, it is much more difficult to maintain a relationship.
I know that this all sounds like vague-booking, but for the purposes of this exercise I am more interested in the mental process rather than the particular incident that inspired the finger twitching over the keyboard. I don’t think I’m alone. Most people consider what they are told in the same way, and try to be as honest as a fallible human might in most situations. But, as we find in the Rolodex when someone bends the truth beyond its natural flexibility, they have usually done it before and the walls of their house are so twisted that they no longer meet at the corners. Such a house can become unliveable, and like many, I have always been sensitive to drafts.