Truth

  • Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God? – typical courtroom attestation
  • It’s just a little white lie; it won’t hurt any one. – frequent justification
  • Does this dress make me look fat/old/slutty/… ? – typical opportunity for a little white lie
  • I don’t exactly lie. I practice what I like to call ‘Truth Management.’ – Christian singer from the 80s, being more honest than it might sound
  • A lie can get half-way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. – source unknown
  • The Bible is full of true stories, some of which actually happened. – source unknown
  • Sometimes I love you, and sometimes I lie, ’cause no one feels anything all the time. – Bo Bedingfield, song lyric, pending release
  • Would you lie to protect a loved one? – classic truth-teller’s dilemma
  • Would you lie to protect a surprise party? – Well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?

I am in favor of truth. Telling a lie means remembering at least three aspects of an event – what really happened, why you don’t want to tell what really happened, and what story you made up instead. That’s a lot of work, and a lot of complexity.

Here are two truth-related stories. The first is one of dozens of stories related to my late friend Philip Hankamer. Maybe one day I’ll share more of his stories; he was quite a character.

This first story took place during a rather large equipment relocation in a building with a raised floor. The equipment being brought in required lots of small power distribution cables to be located under various specific floor tiles, and one large power feed cable which would connect to the main power supply cabinet.

A well-meaning but hapless post-grad was in charge of coordinating the move, and provided a detailed diagram showing where all the cables were to be placed. But, after the equipment was placed, and the electrician began connecting the cables, the main power cable was found to be four feet short, and no one knew why.

As all parties stood around staring down at the drawing, and the floor tiles, and the cable pieces, the post-grad spoke up. “That is my fault,” he said. “After I gave the drawings to the electrician for the estimate, we decided to move the equipment four feet, but I never communicated that to the electrician.”

The electrician had, naturally, allowed extra footage for all of the cables except the expensive power feed, which he had carefully cut to reach the specified location.

“Just do whatever you have to do to fix it. We’ll pay for it,” said the post-grad.

Here’s the point of the story. After everyone else had left, Hankamer turned to the post-grad and said, “That was amazing. I have never seen anyone take direct responsibility for an error like that. People usually try to spread the blame around.”

Well, it was the truth.

The second story is about four college students who had tired of dorm life, and were looking for a house to live in. They found a nice old house within walking distance of the campus, and then, in the naive exuberance of youth, decided to see if they might buy the house instead of renting, because that would be, like, way better. So one of the more “responsible” of the guys called the number listed in the want-ad, and asked the lady who answered if she would be interested in selling the house instead of renting it.

Bad move. The house had been in the family for years, and even the hint of such a final separation offer was enough to bring the lady to tears. She was quite upset and made it clear that she did not want to even discuss the house with him anymore. Unfortunately, the student had given the lady his name.

Another of the four students waited a reasonable interval, then called the number to discuss renting. The conversation went much better, and a deal was struck. All was well until…

…the renter required a list of the persons who would be occupying the house. But she already had a bad impression of the first student based on the abortive attempt to “buy” the house. Not a good scene.

So he lied. He used a false name on the list of occupants. Of course, this meant he couldn’t write a check to her. Or answer the phone with his real name. (This was long before Caller ID.) And he had to remember to use the fake name in any house-related correspondence. And someone else had to sign up for all the utilities. And it just bugged him for the entire 12 months they lived there, having that constant lie lurking in the back of his already fragile, college-student psyche, reminding him of it every day he lived in the house.

Eventually he confessed. Coward that he was, he waited until they were moving out, and the potential fall-out was minimized. She had a hard time understanding what he had done, or why, and had pretty much forgotten the “can we buy your house” phone call. It didn’t really even matter – he could have skipped the whole thing, because the student and the lady would in all probability never have any contact with each other.

But he felt that he had to tell her.

It was, after all, the truth.

Yes, both of these stories are autobiographical. The second one happened first, and may have led to my inexplicably blurting out the truth in the first story.

Since those days, I have seriously pursued truth, and often mused about the questions and comments that I listed at the beginning of this posting.

I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I intentionally tangle up aspects of truth by invoking misleading precision. (“That depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”) And I confess that I practice “truth management” sometimes. But I have come up with a test question that helps me decide when to tell the truth and when to “finesse” it, or at least to decide whether I am actually being noble, or just devious.

It seems like a good question to close with.

“If I decide not to tell the truth in this instance, who am I trying to protect? Some other party, deserving of the noble protection of my carefully crafted falsehood, or my own slithery self?”

That sheds an amazingly clear light on most of my Truth Decisions.

One Response to “Truth”

  1. Patrick Lloyd says:

    Carl, truth is upon reading this I realize that I’ve read it before….probably soon after you released it! Yet another senior moment of mine. I nevertheless once again appreciated your insights into the matter. PAL

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