Monday, February 9, 2015

When It Comes to Lying, The Truth is Often Hard to Face

“If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”  --Mark Twain

I lied. There it is.

Like many insecure adolescents, in my early teen years I got in the bad habit of sometimes lying to others when recalling the events of my young life. Like saying I caught the winning touchdown pass in a football game when the truth was, it was just another score. Or bragging about how I was the boss in my first high school job, when in reality I was just another one of the guys in the warehouse.

I'd like to say I've been completely free of this temptation now that I'm all grown up, but the truth? Like all humans I am still tempted at times to lie about the circumstances of my life. Embellish a personal story to make it more interesting. Shift the narrative to put me at the center. Omit details to enhance the drama.         

We humans lie like this for one simple reason: to make ourselves look better in the eyes of those we tell our story to. We lie out of insecurity. We deceive and exaggerate in the hope people will like us more. We lie to puff up what we've done, to hide what we've failed to do. Lying, not telling the truth about who we really, really are: it is the oldest and most dependable of human sins. Just four chapters into the first book of the Bible, Cain murders his brother Abel in an act of jealous rage and almost immediately, God asks, "Cain, where is your brother?" His answer? A lie: "I don't know." 

The temptation to lie about ourselves is buried deep in our spiritual DNA as humans. Sure: we can always self-righteously say that we never, ever, ever lie. That we are so much better than those who deceive. That we are rigorously honest: would not, could not, fib or obfuscate or cover up or fabricate. Not me! It's hard to confess, but I know I've got a bit of Cain in me. I'm ever aware of that most human of struggles, especially when I fail or screw up or make a mistake and want to cover up or cover over.

Can I then just tell the truth? Fess up. Own it.

I wonder if that's what NBC Nightly news anchor Brian Williams felt last week when he apologized on national TV to millions of viewers and to veterans and admitted that he made up a story about his battlefield valor. Williams was a passenger on a helicopter in the Iraq War in 2003.  The lie? That his chopper was forced down by rocket propelled grenades. The truth? The incident happened on another helicopter, not the one he was on.          

Williams said, "I made a mistake recalling the events of 12 years ago." The fallout has been immediate and swift. Williams has stepped away from anchoring while NBC investigates. He has been crucified in social media and the press: mocked, vilified, and shamed for all to see, often with a tone of cruel gleefulness on the part of his critics. The downfall of one of the best journalists on TV has been ugly and sad to witness. No matter the outcome, Williams' reputation will never be the same again, even if he returns to the air.  All because to make himself look better, he failed to tell the whole truth. How human. 

I do wish Williams would go a bit deeper in his admission. I wish he'd just say to the world, "I lied and I ask for your forgiveness." That's what those of us in a faith tradition are blessed with: the opportunity every day, in relationship with our God of mercy, to bring our whole selves to the Creator.  To admit that we are human and broken. To remember that we all fall short. To own the feet of clay we stand upon daily and then to confess. Take responsibility.  Receive graceful forgiveness and then move on and try, try again. To have the courage to go to those to whom we have lied to, hurt, or deceived, and ask for their forgiveness too.

I'm not sure if I think Williams should return to the anchor chair. I leave that to others to judge.  But I do know that Williams' very public and sad downfall reminds us, that in spite of protests to the contrary, we are all just human. We are all Cain.  We all face the temptation to lie, in large and small ways, hundreds of times a day. Most of the time we tell the truth.  Sometimes we do not.  The gods and God: they may be perfect but you, me?  Not even close.    

So I'm saying a prayer for Brian Williams, that in the midst of the storm, he might seek and receive some grace.  He lied.  But I do too sometimes.  We all do. 

And that's the truth.

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