A Cycle of Lies
Let’s call her Honey. She’d gotten pregnant. Her boyfriend was thrilled; she was not. If her parents learned she’d had sex outside of marriage, they’d be crestfallen. If her conservative Christian college found out, she’d be expelled.
Since she was in a special program that would allow her to get a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in only five years, she didn’t want to transfer someplace where she wouldn’t have the same opportunity. Besides, regardless of where she studied, Honey knew how stressful it would be to raise an infant while in school, and her career was important to her. She wouldn’t jeopardize that. To make things worse, she didn’t want to have a baby outside of marriage, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with this young man, so she wasn’t going to marry him. At least not for a while. She felt stuck.
Because she didn’t trust her friends to keep it quiet, and she didn’t dare talk to her minister who was also her parents’ minister, and she couldn’t think of anyone else to confide in, Honey had to figure out what to do on her own. Fear and shame overwhelmed her. Every solution she came up with seemed to lead to disaster.
Finally, not knowing what else to do, and even though it went against her values, she got an abortion. Afterwards, she told her boyfriend she’d had a miscarriage. She figured that way she would never have to tell him the truth.
Planning to put this episode behind her, she carried on with her life, but the abortion caused an infection, and she ended up in the hospital. Now she had to tell more lies.
I asked Honey how she thought it would feel to keep a secret from her boyfriend.
She didn’t seem to understand. Why would keeping a secret be a problem?
Her confusion mystified me. Although I didn’t say anything, I wondered if she really thought she could maintain a loving relationship when a huge lie festered in the background. Didn’t she realize that, eventually, she would start distancing herself from him? Maybe she’d feel guilty, nervous, even angry. She might even blame him for putting her in this position.
But she was young, and she didn’t know what I was talking about. Besides, if she were content to betray her own values and lie to her school, her parents, and her boyfriend, then it seems she didn’t understand how to maintain a healthy, loving relationship. Maybe deceit was part of her parents’ marriage. Maybe for a girl raised in a strict household where natural impulses were condemned, it seemed normal to do anything necessary to avoid punishment, censure, or even inconvenience.
Power and Trickery
Using deceit to outwit a powerful enemy is a time-honored strategy. Children, women, slaves, servants, people of color, the homeless, the poor, and others who lack power in an unfair and evil world may find themselves depending on subterfuge to survive. Trickster tales, such as those about Coyote, Raven, and Br’er Rabbit, developed out of this reality. Like Robin Hood, the trickster cheats the rich and tyrannical to help the poor and downtrodden.
The Korean figure of Kim Son Dal is such a trickster. He uses his wits to defend those who can’t defend themselves. In one of his stories, for instance, he helps some water carriers in the city of Pyongyang. When he goes there for a visit, he finds his friends dejected and defeated. Some merchants have bought up all the rice, and now they are selling it back to the people at prices only the rich can afford. The poor are going hungry.
Wanting to help the people, Kim comes up with a plan. He takes some coins from his pouch and gives one to each of the water carriers. In the morning, as he sits near the river with a mat laid out on the ground before him, each carrier drops a coin on the mat before heading down to the water. By the end of the day, a large pile of coins lies in front of Kim.
The Merchants Are Fooled
When the merchants walk by Kim, they notice the money.
“Where did that come from?” they ask.
Kim explains that the water carriers pay him for the right to collect the river water. The merchants are amazed, but Kim expands on his lie and soon convinces them he has a thriving business. Eagerly, they buy him out.
Yet the next day, when the merchants try to collect their payment, the water carriers laugh in their faces.
“The water doesn’t belong to anyone,” they say and walk on.
When the merchants realize they’ve been tricked, they leave Pyongyang for good. Glad to be able to help, Kim takes the money the merchants paid him and distributes it among the city’s workers. 
Happy and Unhappy Endings
As trickster tales often do, this one has a happy ending. Once shamed, the merchants slink away and the people now have enough money to feed their families.
These days, things would not go so smoothly. The merchants, or others with power and privilege, would fight back. Maybe they’d charge Kim with a crime and have him arrested. To get money from the water carriers, they might threaten the workers with harm. They would make themselves out to be the victim of that terrible Kim person who lied to them. Though in public they would extol the virtue of honesty, they would gladly tell lies to discredit those who challenge or criticize them.
People in power have always done this, and I suppose they always will. That doesn’t mean everyone in power is corrupt or merciless. In spite of the lure of wealth and status, some powerful people live by the ethical standards of honesty, integrity, and kindness.
Poor people do, as well. For instance, in 2005, when he was 17, Kia Stewart, a black man living in New Orleans, learned he was wanted by the police for murder. Knowing he hadn’t committed a crime, and thinking it would be easy to set things straight, he did the honest and honorable thing and turned himself in. It did not go well. Instead of being believed, he was charged and put into custody. The prosecution never followed up on other leads once they had Stewart locked up, and although the state provided scant evidence for its case, Stewart was convicted by a split jury, which was legal in the state where he lived. Honesty didn’t serve this young man very well. 
Coping in an Unfair World
In an unfair world such as ours, poor, black, and female individuals face harsher criticism and punishment than do those who live more privileged lives. Though we are taught that “honesty is the best policy,” in the United States today, obstruction, blaming the victim, and outright lying seem to serve politicians, business leaders, and judicial figures better than does being honest. Again, there are honorable men and women in positions of leadership, but there are many who resort to cheating and lying to keep their power and make their fortunes.
So why should we be surprised when young women such as Honey lie to their communities to keep from being branded as sinful, to keep from being rejected? Why should we expect young men such as Stewart to trust a legal system that repeatedly fails them? The world is unsafe, and our instinct is to protect ourselves. Even those with power resort to lies to protect their “good name,” their wealth, and their comfort.
The Importance of Honesty
As common as lying is, however, there’s a reason we’re taught to be honest. Yes, it serves the judges and rulers if the powerless think God has commanded them to tell the truth, just as it served slave owners if their slaves thought the Bible taught them to submit. But that’s not the only reason.
When we hide behind lies, something inside us shifts. Part of us retreats. The more we lie, the harder it becomes to know who we are, what we stand for, and what we care about. As we become comfortable with deceit, we may even lose our capacity to care. We will lose our capacity to be fully engaged in open and loving relationship.
In his book about courage, Mark Nepo acknowledges how difficult it can be to face the truth, but he affirms that to do so is worthwhile. He uses the example of a time when he thought that facing the truth would destroy his relationship and “rip [him] apart.” Instead, he found that honesty brought him closer to himself and his loved one.  By facing his fears, his sadness, and his failings, Nepo discovered a strength within himself that allowed him to heal the wounds within. In the process, he learned better how to love.
Sometimes, when we’ve been beaten and battered by life, we realize that what life can do to us is not so terrible as what we can do to ourselves. We discover that lies aren’t worth the heartache they cause. The accolades, the material rewards, the eminence we might gain by lying are not worth losing our inner self. This is what religious leaders and sages are warning us about when they encourage honesty rather than deception.
We might liken honesty to what Henri Nouwen calls “drinking the cup of life.” He’s talking about accepting the entire “cup” that is our life, the bad with the good. This is more than making the best of things or adapting to a difficult situation. To drink the cup that life has given us means to stand “with head erect,” to be “rooted in the knowledge of who we are, facing the reality that surrounds us, and responding to it from our hearts.”  This is what it means to be honest.
To be honest in this way takes courage. It requires that we know who we are and that we respect the person we know ourselves to be. It takes faith in ourselves, in the world, and in our god. What do we trust when life has betrayed us? If God seems to have abandoned us, who do we go to? What if life has trounced us so thoroughly that we will do almost anything to avoid being hurt like that again? When we feel threatened, how likely are we to stand “with head erect” and, with honor in our hearts, tell the truth? Close relationships might sound nice, but isolation may feel safer.
Who Are We to Judge?
It’s easy to judge Honey, especially if we haven’t faced her struggles. Women pregnant out of wedlock have historically faced enormous censure, blamed even if they are raped. Thirty years ago, it seemed this was changing, and perhaps the Me Too movement is making a difference now, but harsh and punitive laws are being enacted that will make it harder, once again, for a woman to control her body and her life.
Listening to the young woman’s story, I felt conflicting emotions. Along with my surprise at her naivete and her inability to consider the long-term consequences of her actions, I felt a deep sadness. She experienced so much pressure to be a good girl and to succeed. Being young in age and at heart, she didn’t have the perspective to realize we can recover from loss. She couldn’t imagine being forced to leave her school. She couldn’t bear her parents’ disappointment, for she didn’t know if they would ever again be proud of her. Frightened and alone, Honey did the only thing she could think of.
And this left me feeling angry, mostly at the university. By requiring their students to sign a promise to refrain from drink, from sexual activity, and from other sinful behavior, they were setting them up to lie. Her parents, too, set their daughter up to do things behind their backs. I felt angry at those who demand obedience and purity in exchange for acceptance and love. As Honey’s life shows, by trying to control through threats, which is essentially what the school does and what Honey’s parents may have done, we encourage dishonesty.
With Honesty, We Win
There are better ways to encourage wholesome behavior. Though it is sad that Honey didn’t feel loved and supported enough to choose to give birth to her child, the greater tragedy is that she couldn’t conceive of such loving support. Caught up in a system that understood goodness to be obedience to a set of rules, she couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t have to achieve, or excel, or prove something to be accepted.
Not everyone deserves our honesty. That’s why tricksters outwit the greedy and the cruel. But keeping secrets from our loved ones separates us. Guilt gets in the way; fear makes us withdraw. If we want healthy relationships, we must face difficult situations with courage and honesty.
The strongest among us will be able to tell the truth no matter what the consequences. Most of us will not. Yet the more we can be true to our inner nature, our faith, our values, and our god, the stronger we will become. We will find the power to face deception, hatred, and threats with integrity.
Honey felt alone, so she lied. What if, instead, she had been held by a compassionate community? What choice would she have made then?
We can help the Honeys of this world, and one another, by providing that compassionate support. Together, we can find the courage to stand “with head erect,” to face our inner demons and speak our truth, even in the face of menacing threats and cruel lies. Not everyone deserves our honesty, but we do. In the end, when we hide behind deception, we are the ones who lose. Yet when we are honest, true to ourselves and our values, then no matter what happens, we win.
In faith and fondness,
- Jaffe, Nina and Steve Zeitlin, The Cow of No Color: Riddle Stories and Justice Tales from Around the World, New York: Henry Holt, 1998, 94-98.
- Brazelon, Emily, “Shadow of a Doubt,” The New York Times Magazine, January 19, 2020, 53.
- Nepo, Mark, Finding Inner Courage, San Francisco, CA: Conari Press, 2017, 213.
- Jonas, Robert A. ed, The Essential Henri Nouwen, Boston: Shambhala, 2009, 53.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved