I’m such a liar. Seriously, I am. That’s the truth.
But don’t worry. I lie only when necessary, and almost exclusively to make myself look better. I prefer to think of myself as an unreliable narrator, just like Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” but I’m O.K. with calling myself a liar.
We all lie, don’t we? Some profess to tell only the truth, but those insufferable suck-ups are probably the biggest liars of us all. Besides, lying is fun and can get you out of sticky situations. In short, honesty is grossly overrated.
My first conscious lie was at age five or six, when my parents were having the kitchen floor redone. At the end of the afternoon, there was a glossy coat of something that looked like molasses spread on the floor. The area was also roped off with caution tape so that we’d know not to walk on the floor when it was still drying. I knew that walking on the floor was forbidden. How could I not have known? Though I was a somewhat stupid child, I could, after all, see the caution tape.
But perched by the edge of the boundary of the kitchen floor, gazing onto the perfectly smooth, shiny, floor—and, I might add, with my sister by my side egging me on—it was too perfect to resist. I had to know what it felt like to walk on that glorious floor. So I climbed over the tape and stepped on it, and then began to make my way across the kitchen. It was sticky but not debilitatingly so. Somewhere in the distance a door slammed shut, and I scurried back to safety, sure that I’d be caught and possibly summarily executed.
But it wasn’t until the next afternoon, while my friends and I chased and bit each other in the park at my sister’s birthday party, that my father, stopping by the house to make some more sandwiches, noticed the little footprints that marched carefully into half of the kitchen and then swiveled back as quickly as they had come. He stormed to the park, a few squashed sandwiches in tow, seething. Smoke poured out of his ears. The instant I saw him, I knew I was done for.
So I lied.
“Oh my God, I am SO sorry,” I gushed (or whatever the five-year-old equivalent of effusive regret is). My mother, who is trusting to a fault, backed me up, and though my father was dubious, he believed the lie—that I hadn’t known I wasn’t supposed to walk on the floor—until my sister told him otherwise. But it was nice while it lasted: Lying was the perfect way to get off the hook, to retroactively turn guilt to innocence. I knew I’d done something bad, anyway, and didn’t plan to repeat the action. I knew what it was like to walk across the floor, and it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. No need to tell the truth.
These days, I dabble mostly in white lies: telling people that they look nice when they don’t and that I like them even if I despise them—that sort of thing. There are gray lies, too, which Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, the psychologists who wrote “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People,” assert are “shaped more by the desire to spare one’s own feelings than by the intention to spare someone else’s” (telling a homeless person that you have no change when, in fact, you do, but do not care to give money, but also do not want to appear hostile or heartless, for example).
I tell a lot of white and gray lies, mostly for my own benefit. Even telling a friend that she looks good in her new pants when in fact I think they’re unflattering is as much for my benefit as it is hers: It’s not to preserve her sensitive ego; it’s because I’d feel guilty and mean for saying, “Those are gross.”
I’m comforted by the fact that there is evolutionary reason to lie. Banaji and Greenwald call “red lies” those lies that are meant to be in service of perpetuating a genetic line. For example, Banaji and Greenwald say this about a potential red liar: “One obvious example of this skill in action is the person who deceptively declares ‘I love you’ to a potential sex partner and who might therefore succeed better at passing on his or her genes than someone who claims only to want sex.”
That’s a pretty convincing case against transparency. Imagine if we all said what we were really thinking and feeling all the time (assuming that we ourselves are an authority on what we’re actually thinking and feeling, which is not a given). The human genetic line would be over in a flash.
Imagine if we presented ourselves as we actually are. I would bet that few, if any, more babies would be made. Most people would be ostracized, some exiled to remote islands. Some things are simply not meant to be shared. We tell white lies to save our and others’ feelings; we tell red lies to make sure our genes are perpetuated. Lying is O.K., as long as nobody’s life is in danger.
When has honesty taken on such a noble and important role in our society, anyway? “Truth” is a complete lie. Everything is subjective, after all, and though truth is often heralded as some objective standard, it isn’t that at all. Nobody knows anything for sure, as we speak from our perspectives only; besides, what is “true” in one moment is totally false in the next. And if truth is so evasive and fleeting, why get attached to it at all? Honesty is only a virtue because we’ve made it one. It might be smarter and more exciting to lie more. So lie. And love it. The truth really does hurt.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.