Is it Ever OK to Tell a Lie?
We humans have one particular gift that no other creature on this planet has, the ability to communicate verbally. A gift that has built communities, knowledge and trust – ultimately civilizations and history. Maybe that is why most of us find lying so wrong, it’s squandering a gift. Across geographies, histories and cultures people agree that the truth is important; striving to tell the truth is a good thing, and not telling the truth is a bad thing. I know my parents drilled it into me that lying is unacceptable. That said, they told me a fairy paid me hard cash to take away baby teeth if left under the pillow, and that a chubby guy, in a red suit popped down the chimney on the 24th of December to leave me lots of gifts; but only if I’d been good – you know, clean, tidy, honest. So, from a very early age, I – like many children – was taught two conflicting things! Telling the truth is important, and a guy who is a lie, will judge you on it! Confusing!
I possibly ponder the whole truth and deception question more than average. As a novelist, I am paid to make things up in the name of entertainment. Yet it is hoped that through my writing – my characters and plots – I capture and explore something quintessentially honest about human nature, and that I create worlds people believe in, trust and relate to. I move closer to the truth, through fiction. What a conundrum!
My latest novel, bluntly entitled Lies Lies Lies, is about Daisy and Simon who have been together for nearly twenty years, many of which were dominated by their yearning to start a family. We meet them when they have their longed-for daughter, and everything should be perfect now that they are a happy family of three. However, Simon is pushing for a second child and Daisy is strangely resistant to even trying again. Thwarted, Simon is drinking more than usual. One night at a party his drinking spirals out of control with horrific consequences. This little family can never be the same again. In this book I look at the power of addiction and the redemptive force of friendship, but mostly it is about the danger of secrets and lies. This couple are incapable or unwilling to be honest with each other, despite twenty years of history. I spent a lot of time wondering why not, and if they are the exception or the rule (albeit an extreme version of). Are we all incapable of telling the truth? I wonder, what are deal breakers, and is there ever an acceptable time to lie to anyone?
I have told lies, we all have. It is part of being human. But I’ve always thought that the lies I tell are acceptable (am I lying to myself?). Little habitual lies include (although not limited to) ‘I got stuck in traffic’ (I couldn’t drag myself out of bed), ‘The report is almost done’ (nope, haven’t started it), ‘I already have something in my diary that evening’ (that sounds boring, I’d rather a quiet night in). I have lied when I’ve believed I have someone else’s best interests at heart; that I’m saving them pain or worry. For example, I often tell my mother I’m healthier (and even happier) than I am because she lives at a distance from me and telling her otherwise will lead her to worry about a situation she can’t influence or improve. This started when I went to college and didn’t want her to know I was struggling with my physical health, work, finances or broken heart. I filtered, only telling her about the things that were going well in my life. Then I out-right lied. First, when I had a serious chest infection that looked like it might deteriorate into pneumonia, I said it was nothing to worry about; that I was fine. When I got better, I told myself lying had been a good thing, I hadn’t worried her. But then I started telling her I was socialising when I was not, that I was on top of my work when I was not. Was I still saving her from worry or, by this point, was I saving myself from hassle of being nagged?
After thirty years of filtering and only delivering mostly good news, I look back, and wonder is this acceptable? No doubt, I have saved my mother from some worry, but at the cost of intimacy. I have, over time, become so self-sufficient I struggle to ask for help and I’m never offered any because as far as my family are concerned, I’m fine. Always. They believe my lies, but the truth is, none of us are fine all the time. I’ve hurt myself as the liar, by taking away support and intimacy and possibly I’ve hurt my mother and family because I took away their choice in how they might react to my reality. Maybe my mother, even at a distance, could have suggested remedies or routes to help treat an infection or sprinkled wise words that would have eased the aching heart. So, after some tough soul-searching, I’ve decided that lying to save someone else’s feelings is still a mistake.
Next, I wondered is lying OK if there is nothing that can be done to change a situation? Is timing a mitigating factor? I mean if someone was in hospital on their deathbed and their house was burning down, what can be gained by telling them the truth about that situation? Let them drift away thinking they’ve left their kids a home, right? But that’s a pretty extreme example. At the risk of seeming somewhat reductive, at some point in all our lives, we have all been asked by our friends, sisters or partners a variation on the question, ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ They have fished; not necessarily for a compliment, maybe for reassurance or firm advice. If they look truly awful, is it ever acceptable to lie?
Well, if that question is asked in a store changing-room and your friend is about to buy an outfit for their ex’s-wedding, then it is cruel not to serve up anything other than the cold hard truth because there is time to change the situation and pick- up something flattering. But what if the question is asked just as your bestie is heading into an interview for their dream job, and they have absolutely no time to change their outfit (hair or speech)? Then the most helpful response to that question is, ‘You look brilliant, now go in there and knock ‘em dead.’ This will boost confidence, while being told, ‘Babe, you look like you borrowed your grandma’s clothes’ at that point is not going to help. So, a lie is detrimental to the person who is dressed like their grandmother if there is time to change the situation but not helpful if there is not!
Telling the truth can be uncomfortable, hard. Especially if we’ve been caught doing something dubious that we’d really rather not have to face. Honesty, it seems, pays. Or is that costs?
Adele Parks’ newest book, LIES LIES LIES, launches August 4th, 2020 by MIRA.
About the Book: Daisy and Simon spent almost a decade hoping for the child that fate cruelly seemed to keep from them. It wasn’t until, with their marriage nearly in shambles and Daisy driven to desperation, little Millie was born. Perfect in every way, healing the Barnes family into a happy unit of three. Ever indulgent Simon hopes for one more miracle, one more baby. But his doctor’s visit shatters the illusion of the family he holds so dear. Now, Simon has turned to the bottle to deal with his revelation and Daisy is trying to keep both of their secrets from spilling outside of their home. But Daisy’s silence and Simon’s habit begin build until they set off a catastrophic chain of events that will destroy life as they know it.
About the Author: Adele Parks was born in Teesside, North-East England. Her first novel, Playing Away, was published in 2000 and since then she’s had seventeen international bestsellers, translated into twenty-six languages, including I Invited Her In. She’s been an Ambassador for The Reading Agency and a judge for the Costa. She’s lived in Italy, Botswana and London, and is now settled in Guildford, Surrey, with her husband, teenage son and cat.