October 2013

* true lies

"I would sooner have the man who sins a thousand mortal sins and knows it, than him who sins but once in ignorance: that man is lost."
(Meister Eckhart)


One of our sons was having a very difficult time in school. He was doing poorly academically; he didn't even know how to follow the instructions on the tests, let alone do well in them. Socially he was immature, often embarrassing those closest to him. Athletically, he was small, skinny, and uncoordinated - swinging his baseball bat, for example, almost before the ball was even pitched. Others would laugh at him. Sandra and I were consumed with a desire to help him. We felt that if "success" were important in any area of life, it was supremely important in our role as parents. So we worked on our attitudes and behavior toward him and we tried to work on his. We attempted to psyche him up using positive mental attitude techniques. "Come on, son! You can do it! We know you can. Put your hands a little higher on the bat and keep your eye on the ball. Don't swing till it gets close to you." And if he did a little better, we would go to great lengths to reinforce him. "That's good, son, keep it up." When others laughed, we reprimanded them. "Leave him alone. Get off his back. He's just learning." And our son would cry and insist that he'd never be any good and that he didn't like baseball anyway.

Nothing we did seemed to help, and we were really worried. We could see the effect this was having on his self-esteem. We tried to be encouraging and helpful and positive, but after repeated failure, we finally drew back and tried to look at the situation on a different level. At this time in my professional role I was involved in leadership development work with various clients throughout the country. In that capacity I was preparing bimonthly programs on the subject of communication and perception for IBM's Executive Development Program participants. As I researched and prepared these presentations, I became particularly interested in how perceptions are formed, how they behave. This led me to a study of expectancy theory and self-fulfilling prophecies or the "Pygmalion effect," and to a realization of how deeply imbedded our perceptions are. It taught me that we must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as at the world we see, and that the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.

As Sandra and I talked about the concepts I was teaching at IBM and about our own situation, we began to realize that what we were doing to help our son was not in harmony with the way we really saw him. When we honestly examined our deepest feelings, we realized that our perception was that he was basically inadequate, somehow "behind." No matter how much we worked on our attitude and behavior, our efforts were ineffective because, despite our actions and our words, what we really communicated to him was, "You aren't capable. You have to be protected." We began to realize that if we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.

The Personality and Character Ethics

At the same time, in addition to my research on perception, I was also deeply immersed in an in-depth study of the success literature published in the United States since 1776. I was reading or scanning literally hundreds of books, articles, and essays in fields such as self-improvement, popular psychology, and self-help. At my fingertips was the sum and substance of what a free and democratic people considered to be the keys to successful living.

As my study took me back through 200 years of writing about success, I noticed a startling pattern emerging in the content of the literature. Because of our own pain, and because of similar pain I had seen in the lives and relationships of many people I had worked with through the years, I began to feel more and more that much of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial. It was filled with social image-consciousness, techniques and quick fixes -- with social band-aids and aspirin that addressed acute problems and sometimes even appeared to solve them temporarily -- but left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again.

In stark contrast, almost all the literature in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the character ethic as the foundation of success -- things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule.

Benjamin Franklin's autobiography is representative of that literature. It is, basically, the story of one man's effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep within his nature.

The character ethic taught that there are basic principles of effective living, and that people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn and integrate these principles into their basic character.

But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the character ethic to what we might call the personality ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction.

This personality ethic essentially took two paths: one was human and public relations techniques, and the other was positive mental attitude (PMA). Some of this philosophy was expressed in inspiring and sometimes valid maxims such as "Your attitude determines your altitude," "Smiling wins more friends than frowning," and "Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe it can achieve."

Other parts of the personality approach were clearly manipulative, even deceptive, encouraging people to use techniques to get other people to like them, or to fake interest in the hobbies of others to get out of them what they wanted, or to use the "power look," or to intimidate their way through life. Some of this literature acknowledged character as an ingredient of success, but tended to compartmentalize it rather than recognize it as foundational and catalytic. Reference to the character ethic became mostly lip service; the basic thrust was quick-fix influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills, and positive attitudes.

This personality ethic, I began to realize, was the subconscious source of the solutions Sandra and I were attempting to use with our son. As I thought more deeply about the difference between the personality and character ethics, I realized that Sandra and I had been getting social mileage out of our children's good behavior, and, in our eyes, this son simply didn't measure up. Our image of ourselves, and our role as good, caring parents was even deeper than our image of our son and perhaps influenced it. There was a lot more wrapped up in the way we were seeing and handling the problem than our concern for our son's welfare.

As Sandra and I talked, we became painfully aware of the powerful influence of our character and motives and of our perception of him. We knew that social comparison motives were out of harmony with our deeper values and could lead to conditional love and eventually to our son's lessened sense of self-worth. So we determined to focus our efforts on us -- not on our techniques, but on our deepest motives and our perception of him. Instead of trying to change him, we tried to stand apart -- to separate us from him -- and to sense his identity, individuality, separateness, and worth.
(Stephen Covey)



We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. We spend our lives with open eyes marching toward remorse, regret, guilt and disappointment. And no where do our injuries seem more casually self inflicted, or the suffering more disproportionate to the needs of the moment than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.

Deception can take many forms, but not all acts of deception are lies. Even the most ethical among us struggle to keep appearance and reality apart.

When asked "how are you?" most of us reflexively say that we are well, knowing that it's a greeting. We know it's not an invitation to discuss our career disappointments, our marital troubles, or the condition of our bowels.

Collisions of this kind are forms of deception, but they are not quite lies. We do not deliberately manufacture falsehood, or conceal important facts to the detriment of others.

To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.

People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the belief, the more a persons well being depends on a correct understanding of the world or of other peoples opinions, the more consequential the lie.

We cannot get far on this topic without first distinguishing truth and truthfulness.

For a person may be impeccably truthful while being mistaken. To speak truthfully is to accurately represent ones beliefs. But candor (frankness) offers no assurance that ones beliefs about the world are true. Nor does truthfulness require that one speak the whole truth.

Communicating what one believes to be both true and useful is surely different from concealing or distorting that belief. The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthful and most of us do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterparts.

People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassments, to exaggerate their accomplishments or to disguise wrong doing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to friends and family to spare their feelings.

Lies can be gross or subtle. Some entail elaborate ruses or forged documents. Others consist merely of euphemisms or tactical silences.

But it is believing one thing, while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.

We've all stood on both sides of the divide between what someone believes and what he intends others to understand, and the gap generally looks quite different depending on whether one is the liar or one is the dupe.

The liar often imagines that he does no harm so long as his lies go undetected. But the one lied to rarely shares this view.

The opportunity to deceive others is ever present and often tempting. Each instance of deception casts us onto some of the steepest ethical terrain we ever cross.

We've all been liars. And many of us will be unable to get into ours beds tonight without having told several lies over the course of the day.

What does this say about us, and the life we are making with one another?

(Sam Harris)


"A lie has no power on it's own. A lie has power only when someone else agrees to believe the lie. So I know while it may sound like tough love, but if you got lied to, it's because you agreed to get lied to.

Lies can betray our country, they can compromise our security, they can undermine democracy, they can cause the deaths of those that defend us.

Deception is actually serious business."
(Pamela Meyer: How to spot a liar)

Joseph Campbell

"There is this figure in American indian Myths, that represents this power, of the dynamic of the total psyche to overthrow programs, this is the negative aspect, and it's called a trickster. It's a very, very important figure in American Indian Mythologies. In the east, in the forest lands, it's the great hare, a rabbit.

Now it's a great puzzler to well trained Christians to come across the trickster hero. Because he is a kind of devil and fool and the creator of the world. So he comes in as an upsetting factor. He breaks through. He even breaks through the notion of what a deity ought to be."

"Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer."

"If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."

"Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have one before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

"A bit of advice Given to a young Native American At the time of his initiation: As you go the way of life, You will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think."

"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."

"Regrets are illuminations come too late."

"The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe to match your nature with Nature."

"We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about."

(Joseph Campbell)