Monday, April 18, 2011

Me, Unvarnished

by Sophie


Lying is inevitable when one is human. I like to think I'm a fairly honest individual, and I'm truly trying to become more so, and yet not a day goes by that I don't tell one form of untruth or another. Most frequently it's the sort of social or "white lie" that is really a shortcut to a desired outcome or a way to avoid a small unpleasantness - "I'm so sorry I can't help with the fundraiser, but we're busy that evening"..."yellow suits you"..."I'd be thrilled to do another round of revisions."

Long ago, I told a far more damaging sort of lie, the sort that is the currency of shame, which any of my close readers will know is the emotion I find most devastating, damaging, and with the richest potential for storytelling. I was ashamed of many things when I was a young adult, key among them a variety of aspects of my upbringing, and so I made up elaborate lies so I would not have to admit to them. They were elaborate not because of their fantastical nature but because of how carefully entwined with the truth they were. I believe I thought these made them less "bad" - that I could be less ashamed of them, in other words, which is getting into a thousand-mirrors scenario with layers and levels of self-deception.

For instance, my father (who is a distinguished and well-published scholar and beloved teacher) was an ill-paid college professor when I was growing up. Because we often struggled financially and I didn't really understand what he did, I made up stories to make his job seem bigger and more important. Ironically, I would say that he had written important books and been nominated for awards - all of which came to pass in time. It's funny now, but at the time I felt an acute stab of regret and shame every time I lied about who my father was, because I recognized it to be a betrayal, even if I was the only one who ever knew it.

This got to be a habit with me. My first boyfriend was a minor athlete, but I made him out to be legendary. When I entered the work force, I pretended that my mother had been a lady of means (she was a coal miner's daughter) who loved fashion and insisted on proper comportment.

In my first suburban neighborhood, I fine-tuned my chameleonic talents. To fit in with my neighbors, I pretended to be more pious than I was (it was a highly religious neighborhood) as well as more traditional in my values and habits. Where I once boasted that my Dad was red-listed as a young man (true, but more a result of a misunderstanding than any radical activism on his part), I edited my story to highlight how my parents met at Catholic University (also true, though my retelling version had them meeting either under the trees during cherry blossom season or in a snowfall after midnight mass, a romantic embellishment from my imagination).

I've largely given up lying about myself - one of the best gifts of middle age - but I have to admit that the urge is still there. Whenever I meet someone new, there is a little editor inside my brain whispering into my ear how I ought to spin myself, to make myself more appealing. I hate this. I wish I could turn it off. I can't deny its usefulness - the chameleon tends to excel in social settings - but it leaves me feeling all wrong, dishonest, confused about who i really am.

The surprising outcome of honesty, however, is that people generally don't seem to think any less of me for it. I've experimented with revealing a few less-flattering aspects of myself; no one seems to mind. I think that people are a LOT more put off by the sort of passive-aggressiveness we tend to engage in when we start a relationship on a foundation of dishonest - I know I am!

I have a few friends and acquaintances who are truly gifted in the honesty department - to the point that their comments can occasionally sting. But I treasure them. It's a wonderful gift to know that what someone tells you truly reflects what's going on in their minds. I'm not there yet, not by a mile, but it's on my to-do list.

Today, I told a small but difficult truth to an acquaintance. It was a little scary. Afterward, there was this moment of fear, of vulnerability, wondering how she would react. And it was led to a good conversation and segued into friendship.

I don't know how to wrap up this post. Um.... "Honesty is good"? - ick. The truth is that dis-honesty is a treasured device for a writer. So many fascinating things happen when people twist the truth. In real life, however, it generally doesn't serve one well.


Mysti said...

Someone close to me struggles mightily with a similar issue. He cannot bear to have people dislike him, which I once took for narcissism, but now recognize as a deep-rooted fear and sense of powerlessness. As he has grown, he is able to let surly waiters and obnoxious ex-girlfriends alike think whatever they will.

I've had to learn that just because it's true doesn't mean it's harmless to say. I struggle with the other side of the boundary, I guess.

Like some kind of anti-Liz-Lemon, still learning how to sit there and let someone be wrong :)

Mysti said...

P.S. Thank you for an eloquent post! A writer's gift and curse, I think, is to always be looking for the dramatically juicy version of reality :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey mysti - it's lovely to see you here this morning. :) yes, reading between the lines, i DO think that wielding honesty responsibly is a middle-aged talent. And yes...we story people ARE always twisting what we observe into more compelling versions....

Juliet Blackwell said...

You always impress me with your honesty, Sophie. This post, beautifully written of course, gives wonderful insight into why it's so important to try to live an authentic life.

Rachael Herron said...

Ooooh, yes. You always start us off right on a topic. I think my worst lies are the ones I tell myself and actually BELIEVE, but you never know about those until you find out the hard way. Will consider this as I think about my post....

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