Monday, June 30, 2003

"People of the Lie"

A woman used to delight my family and me with tales from her life, usually chronicling her encounters with ridiculous people. In all of her stories, she was the sensible heroine, the last intelligent life form on the planet, doing battle with people who were either stupid or mean or both.

Charmed by this woman's intelligence, we at first took in her doses of megalomania with good humor. We all tend to flatter ourselves. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," the Bible reminds us. My nearly half-century on this planet has shown me that that's certainly true of me: I do sin and fall far short not only of the way God wants me to live, but even of the way I would like to live. An awareness of my huge imperfections tends to make me charitable toward others' foibles.

But as we became more acquainted with this person, something alarming happened. Her stories and her opinions about others became more cutting, nastier. Her world began to be composed of her and of whoever happened to be kissing her ring at any given time. It was a world that shrank to small dimensions. Those she once embraced as dear friends were dismissed if they got in the way of her agenda.

She also attempted to enlist others in lying for her, coaching them to fib about her whereabouts and availability for those she once called her best friends. When people refused to lie for her, they were crossed off her list of friends.

In fact, it became obvious that lying was this woman's way of life. The seemingly innocent stories that had at first charmed us took on a more sinister air. As increasingly we caught her lying and scheming to lie, we couldn't help but wonder, "What other lies that we once accepted as the truth has she told us?" Or, "What lies might she have told about us?"

Those were jolting questions.

All our interactions with people--whether with the meat-cutter at the supermarket, the co-worker on the assembly line, the pharmacist filling our prescription, or the employee at the day care center--depend on trust. That's why Jesus said that we shouldn't have to go through elaborate rituals to assure that what we say is the truth. "Let your answer simply be yes or no," Jesus said.

I suppose that all of us have lied. Sometimes we may even lie to protect people from being hurt and there may be virtue in that. But as a way of life, deceit is destructive of friendships and of societies.

Psychotherapist M. Scott Peck wrote a best-selling book several years ago called People of the Lie. In it, he asserted that there are people--some of them warming seats in church buildings on Sunday mornings, some considered the pillars of society--who are given over completely to evil. They are like the people Jesus excoriated in John 8, children of the devil who, when they lie, are simply speaking according to their natures.

My family and I have learned from painful personal experience that such people exist and that when we encounter them, the best thing to do is to walk the other way.