On Lying (in response to Lance Armstrong)
So . . . he lied. Lance Armstrong is another in a long line of public folks who've seemed so convincing in their apparently earnest but dishonest insistence on one thing or another. Maybe it comes in someone's passionate defense of their innocence. Maybe it comes as someone else hides behind a cloak of expertise to demand adherence to a supposedly scientific claim, even when that claim turns out to be less absolute than they say. Maybe it's the arrogance of allowing no doubt about something that's actually doubtable, or when someone challenges the integrity or intelligence of anyone who doubts them. (Some doubt is worth questioning, but not all.) Trying to protect his lie, Lance Armstrong shouted folks down and even sued some for telling the truth.
There's a plot to this kind of lying, some say. The bigger the lie, the louder you say it and the surer you sound about it. If you admit any room for doubt or dialogue, you lose. Folks who orchestrate such deception count on the idea that in a time of such uncertainty, when it is so hard to know what to believe in so many areas of life, we can be tempted to believe anyone who sounds sure of their self. "He says it with such power and conviction." "She sounds believable." "He must know more than I do." "I want to believe her."
Believing is not always wrong, of course, for each one of us wants to be believed when we're telling the truth. But when this desire is manipulated, we can end up living in a world where truth feels more like a hall of mirrors than the fruit of thinking, dialogue, learning, and logic. Truth can get separated from the lives of the people who claim it. It can get caught up in what the comedian Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness." His comedy is based on the observation that our public life is more and more an argument over what feels true or honest rather than a pursuit of what is true or honest. And folks who are watching might begin to think that most things are gamed for the benefit of the people running them. We can lose trust in the idea that leadership comes from willingness to sacrifice for the sake of an institution rather than reap personal gain from it. We can lose the idea that both institutional leadership and public reputation are forms of stewardship and not just a power game. The smog of harsh rhetoric around us can overwhelm and any one of us can be tempted to decide it's just easier to believe the person who sounds most sure, or "truthy."
On the other end, some of us fall into a deep and life-sapping cynicism in response to all of this. Our children learn to distrust everything, challenge everything, and cling to a sense that they cannot and should not give their hearts over to anything. And they decide they're on their own.
It's a pendulum swing between incredulity (believing nothing) and naivete (believing anything).
So here's the rub in all of this, at least for me: trust, truth, relationships, stewardship, and peace get lost in the swinging. For there are persons around us who've earned their expertise. There are persons around us who've earned the worthiness of trust, whose life of integrity and honesty (however imperfect) has earned them a justifiable benefit of the doubt. Folks are sometimes the victims of whole or partially false accusations and so deserve the right to explain and defend themselves. There are times when we should trust someone, not because we've been somehow "taken in" by their apparent sincerity, but because they deserve to be trusted. If we lose these possibilities because we're swinging on that pendulum, we lose something of our humanity. And we also lose the possibility of religious community.
Confidence is good, don't you think? But do you agree with me that it needs to be textured by openness, curiosity, and teachability?
Sincerity is good, too. But do you agree with me that it's best measured not just by how someone garners sympathy, but by a life of honesty, self-sacrifice, and regard for others?
Expertise that's earned is helpful to us all, but don't you think it's most reliable when it allows for humility and wonder before understanding not yet achieved?
Trust is deserved by virtue of the roles we play in life, but don't you think it's also won by our actions? Isn't it won by a sense that the trustworthy person is willing to set aside her personal interest for the sake of the truth she asserts or institution she leads? And isn't it won in a sense that someone is open to learning more, and shares what he believes as an offering and not a battering ram?
Isn't integrity shown in the whole of ones life, not by an accumulation of successes but by a history of faithfulness even through struggle—doing the best one can, confessing one's brokenness, working hard, acting out of principle, delaying gratification, deferring to others even when taking ones place, honoring God?
I think I'm sounding old fashioned, or at least doomed to failure in the modern world. Oh, well. I just hope I'm not lying.