My sister, I was surprised to learn recently, does not remember our father’s insistence on truthfulness. Honesty, to him, as I remember it, was not only the best policy, it was the only policy. Truthfulness, as we’ve noted here, as becomes clearer as I head toward old age, is sometimes a tricky business, not as straightforward as an eight year-old might believe.
“If you tell the truth, we can deal with whatever it is,” I remember my father telling me. “A lie will only make things worse. Lies only complicate things. If you are honest you don’t have to worry.” Thinking of this now, it’s a foolishly oversimplified thing to tell a kid, on several levels, even if also a noble one. At the time it made a big impression, and it has stayed with me for the rest of my life, so far. But there are several problems with it.
For one thing, a lie will not “only make things worse”, it will also, sometimes, make a bad thing seem to disappear. New Liars become committed liars once they see, to their great relief, and later to their occasional thrill, how well lies can work. People willingly believe them and a terribly worrying thing, a shameful thing, has been made to go “poof!” There’s a palpable sense of relief when the concerned party relaxes their face and smiles, so glad to hear the bad thing they suspected never actually happened (even though, if the truth must be told, it actually did happen).
As for lies only complicating things — how does making a bad thing disappear make anything more complicated? We’ve all heard the old saw about “if you tell the truth you never have to worry about remembering a made up story” but, in a sense, all stories are to some extent made up. Add to that the plain fact that most of the time nobody follows up on a lie, no day of reckoning ever comes in regard to most plainly untrue things. And then there’s the matter of liars who actually believe they are not lying, even when they demonstrably are lying.
If you are honest you don’t have to worry? You can just sit back, I suppose, and enjoy your hemlock, but as for honesty generally removing worries, au contraire, mon frere. Sometimes, rather than setting you free, the truth will set you up, like a crooked cop bagging up and planting the bloody glove you dropped at the crime scene in your foyer, with your DNA and the victim’s soaked into it.
But as for me, and even as I may be in some ways lying to myself, as my father, I see now, lied to himself, I prefer the truth most of the time. It’s important to me. There is a version of every story much closer to the truth than what we get fed most of the time. There are real issues, with real problems involved, sometimes intractably intricate ones, that can only be solved by honestly grappling with the actual facts, set clearly aside from blinding preconceptions about things like “liberty” and “justice” or “vengeance” or “pride”.
That our most challenging problems can only be tackled successfully by a truthful investigation and a frank discussion is beyond dispute, but to hear most people talk, particularly here in the USA, USA, it is but one opinion among many. Like the assholes we all have, there is no shortage of opinions, many of them just as appealing as the average asshole.
Some questions, I’m afraid, are unambiguously straight-forward and the answer is either true or false. “Were you there?” is an example. There are only two possibilities, a yes or a no. Only one is true, although the clever person can answer “yes and no.”
“Yes, I was there, you know, but I was so tired, I just got back from a long business trip, and I was so out of it, that I was in a daze and so I didn’t notice anything around me. Outside of the fact that I recall I was there, and technically, ‘yes’, I was there, I can honestly say ‘no’ I wasn’t actually there, not in anything more than insensate zombie form, so yes, and no”
“A blind man can see where you’re going with this,” says the skeleton, waking in a bad mood. This apprehension is common among abuse victims, who often wake up fearing the worst, history about to rear its ugly head and whip them in the face at any moment.
“Oh, you smile now,” they say, “but so did mom before she let loose with that flurry of stinging lashes with the heavy, frayed, coarse, canvas-wrapped cord of the old steam iron.”
I get it, I’ve been there, I’ve woken up there. I’m not going where the blind man can see I’m headed, not necessarily. I hadn’t intended to even mention my father’s essentially denying the Holocaust, as to our once large, now brutally culled family. In fact, I won’t even mention it now.
My point was actually that my father’s insistence on his son telling the truth was, to my mind, one of the great things he gave me. I always try to be truthful, except in those white lie situations where someone asks me, with a smile of great vulnerability, how her ugly new hair style makes her look. Does my quest for honesty make me judgmental and intolerant, when I am faced with people who habitually lie? Well… I can’t lie, it often does. I’m just saying, it’s more complicated. It is not that the truth does not exist– it does exist. There is a version of reality way more heavy with truth than the opposite view, in most cases. It all depends on how honestly you can look at the situation.
“OK, so you, then, my son, tell me which is the truth, which weighs more heavily on its side of the scale?” said the skeleton.
“You are a person who never cared about making a living, never competed to try to sell any of your fairly impressive talents, was never content to work in any capacity that did not somehow involve respecting your love of creativity and collaboration, you always lacked discipline and ambition, yet you made a fetish of honestly feeling superior to the need to go to work and to everybody who goes out every day and earns a living. In short, too scared to compete to get remunerated for your talents and too proud to admit you are a coward, fashioning yourself instead as a humble man of great integrity resisting the gravitational forces of modern American capitalism.”
“I’m sorry, dad, was there a question in there somewhere?”
“Is your insistence on doing exactly what you want to do at any given moment: play music, draw, write, pontificate, day dream, a manifestation of a true belief worthy of respect or the outward sign of a lifelong sad, childish clinging to something– creativity for the sheer joy of creating– that never actually existed anywhere, ever?”
Good question. Tricky question. One thing I have to say before anything else: the honest answer can, I know it’s maddening to hear your son say it, truly be both things at once. Were you a great man or a destructive man? Was Mantle a great hero or a colossal asshole?
Take the example of Peevyhouse v. Garland, dad. The upright, supremely fit gay rascal prof in law school, Bratton, presented that eternal either/or (or both) contradiction superbly, better than I’d ever seen it done. It was the most brilliant demonstration of the lawyer’s art, and perhaps the nature of truth and justice, at least as far as court cases go, that I’d seen up to that time.
The Peevyhouses owned a farm that they leased to a corporation, Garland, who explored it for some kind of ore or other resource. The exploration took the form of gouging the surface of the land, a sort of investigatory strip mining. Garland promised, in the contract, that if they found nothing, they would restore the farm to its original condition. They found nothing, but didn’t restore the farm. Peevyhouse sued Garland for breach of contract.
Day one Bratton made the case for Peevyhouse, the poor farmers screwed by the evil, lying corporation that destroyed their home, their beautiful farm, reduced their once lovely world to shit and then brazenly breached their clear, contractual promise to fix it. Every student was enraged at Garland by the end of that presentation, ready to decide the case. A clear, open and shut case of breach of contract. Bratton told us to hold on to our nooses and be ready for part two the next day.
Day two Bratton presented the case from Garland’s point of view. The Peevyhouses were not farmers, nor were they a cuddly family, they were, in fact, rapacious professional predators. They bought dozens of properties, entered into these kinds of leases for land they never even set eyes on, and had sued dozens of companies under various theories, settling many every year, in fact much more profitably than Garland’s small, mom and pop operation. The cost to Garland to restore the land, which was unused in any case and of little value to Peevyhouse except as a lever to extract huge settlements in court, would virtually put them out of business. It was the practice, in these boilerplate lease contracts (Garland had no legal department, Peevyhouse employed a crack squadron of high-priced shysters), to have the clause about repair but, in practice, everyone understood it would never be done. You be the judge now.
Now you will say this is an example of not being able to decide the case until the evidence from both sides is presented, rather than one about the shades of truthfulness in any assessment of human affairs. And you would have good point, even though, in practice, the evidence on both sides is almost never presented this completely for people to impartially weigh before deciding what is true, what is fair. It’s impossible to arrive at fairness without going through the truth, I would say.
“When did you become such a an agile, wriggling weasel?” the skeleton asked, with that constant grin that may or may not have been expressive of wry intent.
The truth then, as far as I can see it: most people get their sense of productivity and a good part of their self-esteem from the work they do, the title they hold, the income they earn. Here in America, as in much of the world, a poor person’s life is, literally, worth much less than a rich person’s life. The value of each life can be most easily rendered in dollars and cents. How much is he worth? is universally understood (here) to mean: what is the total value of his assets?
It is also possible, I have discovered, to get a sense of productivity, purpose and self-esteem from the things you do every day, if you do them earnestly and as well as you can, if you hone them, even if you are not paid, even if no title is attached. The future is a worry for everyone, and in the end, most worryingly of all, each of us must die. This is fearful business, particularly in a society that divides everyone into winners and losers and makes no promises of a decent life, or even a dignified death, for the losers. Who are the winners? The richest among us. Who are the losers? The billions of poor people, who keep breeding like flies.
I prefer to see a third category, a category it has taken me years to define for myself, is only really coming into focus now, as I careen into the last chapter of this life. The truth is rarely either/or, as much as we may be conditioned to see the world through a sort of fuzzy black and white dualistic lens.
If you have enough money to pay your bills, and those of the immediately foreseeable future, and are therefore lucky enough to be able to put aside the faceless, endless anxiety of imagining yourself old and forced to eat cat food, shivering in a gutter somewhere for lack of funds to afford shelter, and you have things you love to do, and do pretty well, and you are content and feel productive doing these things every day, how does that make you a loser? It doesn’t make you a winner, granted, but there needs to be a third category. Maybe that category is “lucky bastard” or “conditionally exempt” or something.
“Agile motherfucker,” the skeleton says. “I have to admit, you may be on to something with this detailed portrait of your father. I said as much as I was dying– did I not? How I wished I had not viewed everything in terms of money equaling success, how I defined my worth almost solely in material terms. Maybe I did teach you something worth knowing, you poor bastard. You poor, poor fucking bastard. Good luck stringing out that modest lump sum reparation payment I left you and may your luck letting it ride on the crooked roulette wheel of capitalism continue to hold, though we both know the House will rake the rest of it away soon enough. Bird Wins, baby*.”
Peace out, pops.
*note to self: add definition of “Bird Wins” from intro to Bird Wins