The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 9, 2000
Your Option

Why do people lie?
By Taru Bahl

HONESTY once used to be the barometer of a relationship. One could make mistakes, falter, lie under pressure but there was the confidence that if one bared one’s heart, one would be accepted and the relationship would get back on the rails. Not so today. Family counsellors advise errant spouses not to tell all. They can have hidden bank accounts or cheat, provided they make sure they don’t get caught. Self-gratification and fulfilment is an all encompassing objective and lies provide the perfect foil. As relationships become fickle and alternative lifestyles are flaunted, the dependence factor stands diminished. Habitual liars are no longer petrified of the consequences of ‘getting caught’, or the truth being revealed.

This is why the story of Harishchander sounds outdated. The very thought of a king relinquishing his entire kingdom to appease an angered sage whose meditation is unintentionally disrupted sounds foolish. His act of selling himself, his wife and son in order to raise guru dakshina evokes disbelief. What most of us miss is not the clean slate given by Lord Indra to the king on passing the ultimate test of truth and righteousness but the fact that his wife and son unhesitatingly joined him in his hour of need. They surrendered to his commitment irrespective of whether it made sense to them or not. This is the kind of loyalty a truthful person should evoke. If today we are not doing it, there is something intrinsically wrong with us and the society we are living in.

  The lesson Bill Clinton learnt from the Monica Lewinsky saga was that honesty and truth are double-edged swords. For seven months, Clinton skirted the issue, fabricating alibis and half-truths to get himself out of the mess. When he finally got caught, the headlines screamed: "Liar! Liar!"

When Bharati told her friend that she was lucky in having Rohit as a husband, recounting his Casanova image in college and how she too had a minor crush on him, little did she know that her harmless remark, intended as a compliment, would threaten her friend’s sense of security forcing her to terminate all contact with Bharati.

One evening at dinner, Rohin casually told his parents how he got his first construction contract by paying a bribe to an important official and undercutting his nearest rival. He was least prepared for their reaction. They not only accused him of being a cheat but also felt he had brought a bad name to the family by making them a party to his black deeds. Such a harsh indictment over an honest, though causal, admission which would in a trice trash his labour, sweat and good intent made him realise that ‘truth in its entirety is perhaps not such a good thing after all’.

All protagonists in these instances regretted the day/moment they uttered the truth. Weren’t they happier and better off guarding their little lies? Weren’t the people directly affected by their ‘revelations’ were also happier in ignorance? They realised that truth certainly had the power to break or make a relationship but were unsure on whether honesty alone could salvage or strengthen it. To understand the dynamics of lying one has categorised liars or, to put it mildly, untruthful persons in four different categories:

Complex Liars — Here lying stems from a deep-rooted complex. It is not resorted to as a weapon or to hide/save one’s skin but to camouflage a weakness/inadequacy. If poor, one may project a rich image. If not well endowed in the looks department, one may cook up a series of boyfriends and paramours. If in a mediocre job, one may fabricate new assignments and fictitious clients. Whatever the compulsions, complex liars don’t realise that their lying is like quicksand. One lie leads to ten others. If they tackle the complex and come to terms with it, the need to lie would get taken care of anyway. Often we hype our inadequacy clouding all logical faculties whereas most of our friends and family, at least those who genuinely care for us, would accept us even if we were average looking, middle class and stuck in a boring profession. They may in fact help us do something constructive about it. So half our fears are baseless and the lies are a waste.

Paranoid Liars — They lie out of fear. We all have fears, and the biggest one is of failure. We don’t want to fail in relationships, in the office, at home, in the kitchen and in our responsibilities towards family and friends. It makes us lie in order to get acceptance, respect, love, admiration and happiness. We end up lying even when it is not necessary.

When we do something wrong, intentionally or unintentionally, we know we have made a mistake.
However, we are not brave enough to admit it. It is the the fear of being scolded, insulted, ridiculed or punished which keeps us from telling the truth.

Compulsive Liars — Compulsive lying is a habit. It comes naturally and needs no planning and plotting. Compulsive liars lie about everything. It becomes a deep-rooted malady which needs medical intervention because it is not the result of low self esteem, a dishonest temperament or a non-revealing, non-trusting nature. Over a period of time, these people have come to believe that without lying they can get nowhere. So it is lies, lies and still more lies.

Soft Liars — They lie because they don’t want to hurt others. They take the refuge of statements which leave out a significant part of the truth. When a husband beats his wife and gives her a black eye, she tells the worried children that she fell and got hurt. She does so as she is protecting her husband from the hateful feelings of her children. Soft liars also lie by omission, withholding information which can cause distress. But this too amounts to lying.

So should we or shouldn’t we lie? Is lying acceptable? Present-day psychologists advise, "Total honesty is desirable when dealing with someone who is operating from a position of goodwill and concern, but not with one who could turn vengeful and mean. Also that when a white lie can help avoid hurt feelings or save a loved one from trouble, it stands on a higher pedestal than the plain simple truth."

But wise men of yore and the Upanishads contend, "Satyameva jayate nanrtam, satyena pantha vitato devayanah" (Truth alone triumphs, not untruth, the path to the highest excellence is spread out through truth only). They feel that man has to travel not from error to truth but from truth to truth, from truth that is lower to truth that is higher. Untruths may come and go but it is truth that remains. Truth is the aim of Vedanta, science, creation and life itself. In the present day context, it would be best to talk things over, confront the issues which make one resort to lying. Even if one has gone way ahead in the game of untruths one can do a U-turn and reverse back to a life of normalcy and peace.

Liars know the agony of living under the shadow of being found out, of letting down and losing the people they love. The truth however difficult and risky must be told. If the relationship cannot withstand it, it was perhaps not solid enough. More often than not, people forgive if one’s apology is serious and one resolves not to repeat it again.

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