Truth and lies: does honesty really matter?

According to Mark Twain if you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything. As someone who forgets the carpark location of the vehicle I parked minutes earlier, this is comforting to know. Although I do not regularly lie, it would be inaccurate to say that I am not guilty of the occasional misrepresentation. But then again, we all are. For example, a friend recently confessed to me that when asked by her fiancé to estimate the number of men with whom she’d had past sexual relations she reduced the number significantly. When I asked why, she said it was because she did not want to make her partner feel uncomfortable, both because of the volume of mates she’d had, and because she didn’t want to cause him emasculation concerning the comparatively small number of women with whom he had been intimate. “It would have been weird,” she explained, “He’ll never know. It doesn’t matter.”

But what if it did matter? By hiding the truth from her partner, was my friend inadvertently disguising a part of her past, and more than that, the truth of who she was? Or was she just sugar-coating what she considered an irrelevant fact? Maybe it was just a fib at the time, but if she has to continually reaffirm that fib throughout her marriage, will the lie become bigger? And what if the whole conversation was actually just a missed chance, because maybe, when there was the possibility of honest, open conversation between two adults who intend to share their lives together, my friend took the easy way out?

Arguably, there is a sliding scale of such transgressions. I lied today when the barista making my coffee asked how I was; I told her I was great, but the truth is I am exhausted. My youngest child is having large parts of the day where he resembles the devil incarnate, and I can’t find my hairdryer. I chose to lie because, having worked in retail, I understand the position of the barista well — she did not really want to know how I was; she was just being pleasant and polite. My response needed to match this. But that said, I have lied about bigger ticket items too, pretty half-truths to brighten an otherwise dreary portrait of reality. One such moment is etched in my memory thanks to Facebook’s ‘On this Day’ feature. It was a status I had posted a mere three weeks after my eldest son was born. In it I wax lyrical about how I was essentially winning at all things motherhood. I had a sleeping baby, a husband who had poured me a wine, and I had just smashed a 4km walk for some alone time.

What I neglected to mention was that by that stage of my son’s life I was so submerged in the murky waters of post-natal depression that the whole reason I went on that walk was because I was trying to garner the courage to throw myself in front of an oncoming truck. I don’t remember posting that status, but what I can assume is that I would have scrolled through my newsfeed, read a number of positive statuses about mothers who adored their children and the wonderful world of parenting, and because I knew that I felt the opposite way, chose to fake it. I pretended all was well in my world because I truly wished it was.

Strangely enough, as time passed and I overcame the crippling sense of failure and guilt that clouded my self-image, I became more comfortable speaking truthfully about my struggles, especially as they related to parenting. I ended up writing a blog post in which I discussed — with an honesty that even now turns my stomach — just how close I came to ending my life. I wrote freely about my belief that I was worthless, a burden, and worst of all, a terrible mother. And because I was honest something wonderful happened. My honesty prompted other women to be honest too. I received emails from strangers who had read my words and who noted how similar their own experience had been. Now, some four years later, I can draw from my own experience to offer support to mums who are at their lowest, reassuring them that their feelings are temporary and that with support, therapy and even medication, the greyness can clear.

The post I wrote about my inability to bond with my own son and my feelings of detachment was one of the hardest pieces of writing I have ever produced. I cried litres of tears as I typed it, and when I re-read it, it still has the same effect. But then I imagine what would have been lost had I not written it, if I had just continued to embellish reality. If I had insisted upon misrepresenting my experience of motherhood, I may have missed the chance for connection with other mums engaged in a similar battle. Glossing over the truth would not have opened the door for honest, painful conversations that are hard to navigate and leave me feeling exposed and raw. These conversations have allowed me to develop authentic, deep connections in my friendships.

Lies serve a purpose in our lives. They might allow us to evade difficult moments with our manners unscathed; for instance, the pleasant “That was delicious!” response when finishing an unpalatable but lovingly prepared meal. They can serve as a solution for awkward conversations where the truth is unlikely to be well received, such as offering constructive criticism in a professional environment (e.g., “Look, its great that you’re such an individual but I’m not sure that a t-shirt with a farting Mambo dog on it is the best look for us, especially in court.”) So let’s not rule lies out altogether. Let’s keep the little fibs that allow social interactions to stay well-lubricated, and the small distortions that enable us to save face. But when it comes to generating real connections with people and offering a genuine version of ourselves, honesty may truly be the best policy.

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Image: Asaf R

Sare Tucker profile Sarah Tucker is a Brisbane-raised, Melbourne-based writer, blogger and lawyer whose writing explores themes of family, friendship and mental health. She is a proud mum to two little men and a cattle dog with even more psychological issues than she has. For more of her writing, visit allmydirtylaundry.com.

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