Lies Make the World Go Round

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Ephesians 4:25)

Yeah, right. Truth may be fine for sermons and philosophers, but in real life, it’s lies that keep things going along nicely. Consider the following short conversation:

FRANCINE: How are you?

TOM: Fine, and you?

FRANCINE: Good.

TOM: Glad to hear it.

Everybody’s had this conversation a million times and knows the following to be true:

  1. Francine couldn’t care less about how Tom is.
  2. Tom is probably not fine, but knows Francine couldn’t care less.
  3. Tom couldn’t care less about how Francine is.
  4. Francine is probably not fine either but knows Tom couldn’t care less.
  5. The only thing Tom is glad about is that he can quickly say good-bye to Francine.
  6. Ditto for Francine.

You can call this harmless “etiquette” if you want to, but I like to think of these little exchanges as social insincerities, those necessary falsehoods, those little social bunkers that keep the machine of discourse running smoothly. Without them, the whole machine would collapse under the weight of unwelcome honesty.

Let’s face it: you don’t have time to be honest with everybody. You have places to go, things to do. You have to pick your meaningful relationships carefully. Otherwise you’d end up listening to some endless hard up sob story that you do not want to listen to—and you can be sure that other people feel the same way about your endless hard up sob story too. Transparency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

That’s why I think everybody should adopt the “ask twice” rule. Here’s how it works: If somebody asks you how you’re doing, you should answer “fine” and leave it at that. However, if they follow that up with “How are you really doing?” then you have their permission to spill your guts if you want to, or you can repeat “fine” and everybody’s off the hook. In other words, to keep the system working, the insincerity must come first. Then, if invited, honesty is an option—that is if you’re into that kind of thing.

As a personal matter, I avoid sincerity unless it’s absolutely necessary. Even in prayer I shy away from full disclosure and stick to generalities. I figure God is busy enough without me adding a bunch of boring details. In return, I expect God to keep to the basics as well. I don’t press him on how he’s really doing, and he doesn’t pry into my private life. So far it seems to work pretty well.

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