Following on from my last post about childhood and Mum Down the long lane, I woke up this morning and thought about the lies I learnt to tell from a very young age. ‘Yes, I’m fine’. ‘Yes, this dress is nice’. ‘Yes, I’m enjoying this birthday party, thank you for coming.’
I was taught so easily; coached at daycare, by my parents, by books about good little princesses. As a sensitive child, learning to tune in to others around me, I quickly figured out that it could hurt people if I told the absolute truth, so I didn’t. Perhaps your experience is similar?
One of my earliest memories is crystal clear, and can only be mine (no prompting with an old photo, or someone else’s version of what happened). I’m almost 3 & a half, being taken to visit my new little brother in hospital, as he’s just been born; I’m assuming Dad took me. I remember walking into the room, and approaching the single bed. Mum was lying there, cuddling him as he lay alongside her. And there was something else beside them: a miniature ceramic tea set, with cups and saucers, teapot, milk jug, and sugar bowl. It was very pretty, and I wanted to touch it. Then Mum said ‘Look what your brother brought you.’ A kind attempt to placate any sibling rivalry, to nip it in the bud. I remember thinking ‘Well, he’s too small to have gone to the shops and used money, so he didn’t bring it for me, a grown up did. Probably Daddy. But I want it, so I’ll play this game…’
Thus I lied, and said thank you little brother, that’s great…
Fast forward 2 years: I’m nearly 6, and Mum and Dad were having another party that went late into the night. It was the seventies, so who knows what they were all getting up to! I used to come downstairs in my nightie because I’d hear all the music and laughing; the long living room would be full of women with big hair and colourful eyes, bright dresses or wide pants, men in more somber clothes. Lots of jewellery and big rings. Glasses being held, with empties everywhere. Ashtrays overflowing on small tables. I’d walk around, looking at everyone, smiling at those I knew, staring at those I didn’t.
Another vivid memory: sometimes if I stood still and looked long enough, especially at someone I didn’t know, it was as if layers used to melt off their faces, and I could see inside them, into their fear or their smallness or sometimes their kindness. They would look completely different, like a snapshot from deep within. Sometimes they’d realize what I was doing, and snap themselves shut. But too late: I’d often seen that they were all lying too, playing a game because they wanted something. Or someone…
My lying continued. As a young teenager, I was lonely, caused partly by geography. I attended high school in a town 3 miles from where we actually lived, so kids in my home town disliked me, seeing me as a traitor. And because I actually lived in a town 3 miles away, none of the kids at school liked me either. Well, there were a few, but generally I was not popular. Too different, born in France, smart but lazy, talented in some stuff but hopeless in others, and pretty poor (I was bullied for having a second-hand uniform and being too skinny, over and over through the years).
So I lied about stuff, trying to play a game of acceptance that I could never win. About why we were poor. About why Mum and Dad got divorced. About my lack of homework, or a mysterious illness, or dramatic events swirling around me. I played the game I’d been taught/taught myself, and I hoped desperately for happiness, which came sometimes in the drama room, dance studio, or most often, buried in a book.
The anxiety of being a late-developing teenager was compounded by a sense of deceit; I felt like I couldn’t be honest with anyone, desperately piling pages of stories on top of my real, naked, not-good-enough self. We all did it to different degrees; I’m sure you did too? We worried about all the ways we were ‘supposed’ to behave, or look, or speak, or purchase, and the complex web of our ‘social persona’ unfurled. Teenagers do it still. Let’s be honest: so do adults. That’s why we read all those positive affirmation memes in our Facebook feeds, and why we all have at least one or two Self Help books on our shelves.
But now, I’m fifty. For decades, I’ve been practicing honesty-is-the-best-policy (you’ll be relieved to know). Most of my friends would describe me as direct or forthright. I find it essential to say ‘That’s bullshit’ if I think something is. Yet it’s still possible to omit telling the whole truth isn’t it? Truth is so relative anyway. And if you’re sensitive to the feelings of others, or how they will behave with the new information you give them, it can be tempting to avoid a genuine, 100% disclosure.
Which of course is why relationships struggle, intimate communication can be so fraught, and men and women read books about the different planets they are from.
I’m trying to slow down and really listen to myself in interactions, especially challenging ones. When my son ‘16’ and I argue about homework/chores/staying out late etc, I am truly trying to remain calm, yet express ALL of what I need [well, apart from that ridiculous fight we had last week about what was for dinner when I’d just cooked a massive lunch!]
Prepare to lie indeed. Prepare to slip your soul’s gentle truth sideways, as you weigh up the pros and cons of each situation, and how you can cause the least damage to the hearts of others, including your parents, children, or lovers. Or benefit your agenda. Or ripple the pond of your workplace as lightly as a feather not a rock. Honesty takes courage; it takes softness to reveal your deep fears or inadequacies, and how they’re influencing your behaviour. It takes practice to open your throat, and let out the quiet roar. For sometimes, we know that what we say will destroy something we care about, like a romantic connection, or the tender hopes of an auditioning student for example. Such is Life, painful though it is.
I once heard this in a movie I think, long-since forgotten which one or when. But it’s become one of my mottos:
‘I’d rather be sad with the truth than happy with a lie.’
I wonder how differently my childhood may have played out if Mum and Dad had said ‘We got you this tea set so you’re not jealous of your new baby brother.’ And I’d answered ‘Yes, I knew he couldn’t have bought it, he’s too little. It’s lovely, thankyou, can I play with it now?’