Sunday, November 11, 2007
Where the Truth Lies
"There will be time, to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet."
-- T.S. Eliot
"THE TRUTH CAN BE ADJUSTED"
-- Poster for Michael Clayton
In the pantheon of exceptional lies ever told, it probably doesn't even merit a seat. The Great Teacher's Note Cover-up is initially noteworthy insofar as it was the first time I attempted to put one over on anyone -- in this case, my mother and father -- in such a grand fashion. It obviously wouldn't be the last.
When I was a first-grader at Miami Lakes Elementary, my teacher Miss Feingold made a hobby out of issuing lengthy written diatribes decrying my lack of attention, lack of respect for authority and general lack of interest in anything she had to say. I remember she would give me a look which I now know to be the bitter snarl of the miserably undersexed, then tuck the official teacher-parent document into my backpack and send me on my way -- safe in the misguided knowledge that, perhaps because she was an adult and in a position of some power relative to my own standing, her silly little rant would reach its intended target unscathed.
Believe it or not, her missives actually did find their way into my parents' hands most of the time. This had almost nothing to do with a desire to do right by Miss Feingold and everything to do with the fact that, as a child, I fully believed that my father could read minds, see through walls, be in seven or eight places at the same time -- invisibly -- and make me disappear from the face of the planet as if I'd never existed, should the mood strike him. I never wanted to run the risk of not giving his omniscience its due, and wind up paying dearly for it.
Well, almost never.
The timing of one specific note was such that even the threat of filicide wasn't enough to keep me from ensuring that my parents would never lay eyes on it. It was opening day of the big Miami Lakes carnival -- an annual event that I awaited with the same kind of desperation that a death row inmate waits for that last minute call from the governor -- that Miss Feingold apparently realized it had been some time since she'd pointed her resentment for a 20-something-year tradition of failure in my direction. She penned a nasty note detailing my supposed unwillingness to complete my assignments as instructed -- what she called "lazy" I called "unchallenged" -- and as usual sent me home, this time with what amounted to a ticking time bomb sure to destroy my hopes of going to the carnival once it reached the hands of my father. (In hindsight, I'm almost certain she picked that particular day deliberately.)
Needless to say, I had to take decisive, deceptive action to save my dream of ferris wheels and cotton candy -- so I torched the thing.
It's really a testament to my belief in the investigative abilities of my father, who at that time was a Miami-Dade cop, that I felt the need not only to hide the offending letter but to literally obliterate it. I figured wherever I hid the note, he would find it: whether I dumped it in a 7-11 trash bin or buried it in the next door neighbor's backyard or mailed it to Alaska, one way or the other he'd sniff it out, track it down and pull it out of his ass one night at the dining room table, just to see the look on my face. It was with these superhuman powers in mind that, later that afternoon, I grabbed a book of matches from the aforementioned 7-11, then ran to an alley near my house, set Miss Feingold's words on fire and -- just to be absolutely sure -- buried the ashes in a field a few blocks away.
Later that night, I went to the carnival; I had a great time.
By the way, I fully expect a phone call from my father at any moment informing me that I'm grounded.
As I said, The Great Teacher's Note Cover-up was not by any means the most impressive lie I ever told nor was it the most creative instance of my burning and burying the facts; what was significant about it though was that it marked the first time I realized that lying, despite the admittedly considerable risk involved, had the potential to yield immeasurable benefits. Even more significant was that I suddenly understood that it was indeed possible to do it and not get caught and, most edifying or troubling depending on your point of view, that I could do it without so much as a word of protest from that underdeveloped thing supposedly known as my conscience.
So do it I did -- over and over for a period of my life that I can now say, in retrospect, lasted far too long for me to be able to consider myself a decent and worthwhile person when the totality of my existence is taken into account.
There were times that I simply bullshitted. There were times that I outright lied to people's faces. There were times that I rationalized what I knew to be insincere behavior: I told myself that the truth would hurt too much, so really why bother with it? (In the end, you're doing someone a favor by not telling the truth; it would only cause unnecessary trauma, right?) Providing the ultimate irony was the fact that I worked as a journalist; my job was to tell the truth, and yet in my personal life I told lie after lie after lie. Even when the lies occasionally unraveled, I told more -- at times forgetting what was real and what was nothing more than my own personal pageantry.
I lost track of who I was; I damn well became something I never wanted to be.
Here's the thing though: in spite of the lies I told myself about why I was lying in the first place -- the things I said in the hopes of calming my conscience once it finally did begin putting up a fight -- I somehow always understood that the truth mattered, and that I had no excuse for what I was doing.
I'll say it again -- the truth matters.
It matters, despite what we've come to believe.
At the risk of sounding grandiose, we for some reason now accept that the truth is like anything else in our society: fleeting, malleable -- up for debate, at the whim of democracy or subject to adjustment by whoever shouts the loudest. We're expected to believe that all supposed "truths" are equal and are therefore deserving of equal consideration. This is a lie in and of itself.
Not only do we seem to not mind being lied to, we've come to expect it. Bill Clinton can take you for an idiot by forcefully declaring his lack of sexual contact with a chunky White House intern; Dick Cheney can insult your intelligence by literally trying to make you believe that your eyes, ears and gut are, ironically, lying to you about what's going on in Iraq; Paris Hilton can claim, with a completely straight face, that she doesn't do drugs. The fact that they each have the ability to do it isn't a surprise; the fact that they think no one will care enough to call them on it -- their firm belief that they can get away with it -- is just fucking deplorable.
We're willing to seriously debate the concept of "intelligent design," despite there not being a shred of proof to back it up; we give it creedence simply because there are enough morons out there who believe it, as if reality is subject to the whims of whomever. The problem with this kind of debate is that if we consider all so-called facts to be equal, if pick and choose what we hold up to evidentiary standards, we render the truth worthless.
One more time -- the truth matters.
It matters, because it's a standard by which we measure a lie.
Chuck Klosterman's written a lot over the years about his fascination with questions of reality -- what's real and what isn't, and how can we tell the difference. He makes no apologies for his populist references, and I won't either in this case.
In one of his better essays, Klosterman waxes philosophical on the movie The Matrix. One of the underlying questions posed by the movie -- one of the more subtle aspects of the film that's tough to spot in between crap being blown up and Keanu Reeves turning in yet another mannequin-like performance -- is whether it's preferrable to live a comfortable lie or a harsh reality. His argument, and it's a damn good one, is that if nothing about your life is real -- if it's all a lie -- then the lie becomes the truth. Once again, there's no standard by which to measure the fakery, so it makes no difference either way.
But what if only one part of your life isn't real?
Is it better then to be comfortable, despite not being aware of what's really happening? Is there really bliss to be found in ignorance?
Better yet, is a lie that hasn't been discovered really a lie?
The answers to these questions of course are no, no and yes. Bullshit is bullshit regardless of whether you personally can smell it.
The truth matters.
It matters because any decision made without all the facts can never be the right decision.
If my father had received that letter from Miss Feingold all those years ago, he likely wouldn't have allowed me to go to the Miami Lakes carnival -- or maybe he would have.
I'll never know, because I never gave him the chance.