If lying is the one sure thing that will bring us all to eternal damnation, then we could say the road to hell is paved with tongue-twister intentions.
As a species, we simply lie a lot. We rival those insects and chameleons that practice mimicry or bluffing and camouflage or adaptive and cryptic coloration. I bet you just lied to someone yesterday. And who knows I am not lying to you now? Chances are, both of us will be lying through our teeth tomorrow or in the near future and until the time we die.
There are lots of reasons why we lie, of course, the most nefarious of which is to deceive willfully, to cover up a devious agenda, to cover up a wrongdoing, whether it’s ours or others’. Classic examples: two-timers, kings and queens of denials, a resume riddled with additions and mystified by deletions or withheld information, an income tax return filled in with the wrong numbers, police crime cover-ups, lawyers with malicious intent, government’s penchant to hide whole colonies of squatter shanties behind a wall of white-washed GI sheets. I almost forgot those who promise the moon and the stars and slander people without compunction in order to win the seat of power.
To help detect just this kind of lies, we have invented paraffin tests, lie detector tests and thumb mark scanners, nosy journalists, election volunteers and, why, lawyers. Then we coin such words as dubious, duplicitous, Janus-faced.
Then there are lies tailor-made for such occasions when we want to literally hide from somebody or some people, especially from unwanted suitors, unattractive stalkers, and annoying creditors: prerecorded telephone messages resembling, “Sorry, he's out right now,” when the truth is the bare-faced liar (that's us) is standing only three inches away. Thus, we end up with ridiculous alibis later on.
Then there are lies to protect our pride and vulnerability. We hide skeletons in the closet. We avoid talking about the monsters that haunt our past, and by so doing, we are forced to deny things when we are cornered into telling the truth. For these, we have come up with shrinks and priests or pastors and confessionals. However, judging from today’s preponderance of talk shows that feature people who wash their dirty linen in public, this form of lying seems passé.
Then there are the forgivable lies - unwitting lies, lying out of ignorance, the kind that is both innocent and can be catastrophic. Half-truths and all forms of inaccurate statements can be unintended, but deadly.
There are also lies so subtle we’ve come to believe them as gospel truth. How’s that again? "A lie repeated a thousand times is more believable that a truth that’s been heard only once." We call this kind of lie self-delusion, which is also born of the fact that truth hurts and hurts so much that we will want to deny it. If self-delusion inflates to megalomaniac proportions, it transmogrifies into delusion of grandeur. Examples: fake diplomas hung on someone’s wall, the clothes we wear and the associated lifestyle that don’t match the real us, the accents we feign which sound phony anyway, even the photographs we keep or display. American writer Susan Sontag once wrote that “Photography is a rebellion.” A rebellion from reality, to be exact.
There are lies that are not subtle enough: the intended lie agreed to by both parties. We know we are lying and the other party knows he/she is being lied to or he/she might be lied to, yet there is this mutual understanding between us. We seem to have invented the conspiracy of advertising just for this. When we push products, we put our sponsor’s best foot forward and we strive to refrain from revealing too much. The observer’s participation in the conspiracy is implicit, as he/she tacitly approves the arrangement.
Apart from advertorials, there’s another kind of lying I couldn’t put an exact finger on. Maybe that’s the point of this type of prevarication. I am referring to the case of fine-print disclaimers and exclusionary provisions in contracts that could be read only under a scanning electron microscope. These appear useless and harmless during contract-signing, but eventually prove deadly when you presume the benevolence of the black-and-white too much.
Now how about lawyers trapped into defending the rightfully accused precisely because the latter has that basic right? Maybe it’s safer for us if we don’t get into that kind of trouble. Ah, lying! It’s like love -- a many-splendored thing.
But on certain occasions, it seems alright to tell lies: When we need to save someone’s life from an evil enemy. When we need to protect ours in the name of self-preservation in the face of a threat. When we need to protect someone else’s identity, feeling, reputation, or peace or mind, out of either necessity or charity. In other words, when the law of love - or spirit of the law - supercedes the legalities - or letter of the law. Then we invent such terms as tact, diplomacy, white lies all, lies that make you feel good more than they make you feel like a bare-faced liar. It seems that white lies are here to stay as an indispensable feature of our civilization, an unavoidable tool in a polite society. Indeed if we give up lying altogether, we might end up killing each other until there’s no one else left in the world to lie to. Saki’s (H.H. Munro) short story "Tobermory" illustrated that to me more than any work did. (I'm not lying. Read it!)
I used to regard lying as a lightweight offense. I first learned that lying is a terrible offense only when I got to read that Biblical passage about Ananias and Zaphira, a couple who were instantly killed by God ‘just because’ they lied through their noses. Pinocchio’s nose becoming longer as he continued lying is comparably not as powerful an image of the seriousness of the offense. (It could be to a child, though.)
We know what they say about people who claim their conscience is clear. "They often have short memory." All of us are guilty of lying in at least one category, or will the clearest of conscience please stand up? After all, if we go pharisaical about it, there are really no categories in lying. A lie is a lie is a lie in the sense that we're all fair game to the same father of liars - or at least that fallen part of our nature is.
Seriously now, I guess one’s lifetime of lies will be judged according to one’s own circumstances. To tell you the truth, though, I don't feel very comfortable thinking about it.