Written by Will Conway on Wednesday the 25th of August 2010
There's a fridge magnet in my kitchen which depicts a finger with a bow tied round
and declares 'If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything.' I noticed it as
I put some milk away while making a couple of cups of tea. Taking one of the brews
to my housemate I saw on her bookshelf a blue spine boasting 'ways to improve your
This struck a chord within me. I had never thought of lying as a helpful memory
training exercise until now.
I have always been defensive about lying. Being quite 'economical with the truth'
myself, I suppose in a way I am a bit of an advocate for liars (not you Tony Blair;
you dug your own hole even though we all fell in it). When I was a boy, firstly I was
taught that lying was wrong. Then I discovered the grey area of the white lie. Do you tell your girlfriend that she looks great, because you know she would benefit from
hearing it, when she looks just as bad as she feels? Can you tell someone you aren't
hungry when you just don't want to eat what they have cooked? If your four year old
child asks you what rape is; how do you respond?
Your response requires a degree of discretion. We have to consider other people's
feelings and try to work out their best interests. The problem is that, even if we claim
to know one person's best interests - which are always changing - that still ignores
the rest of the population.
Change is constant. Nothing is absolute. There may be truths but there is no such
thing as 'the' truth. Even with the greatest will in the world (no, not me) you could
answer a question as honestly and as informed as humanly possible, but you could
still be lying. If someone asks you 'Where did Granddad go Mummy?' you may
answer that they are in Heaven. Perhaps that's too loaded a question and another
debate entirely, so I'll try another example. What if you were asked where Tripoli was
and you were certain it was in Italy?
A misconception could very well be defined as a constant internal lie, even if it is
unwitting. Even the most candid person is lying to themselves every day, in some
way, without realising.
To me the notion of honesty seems to be pure arrogance; it implies knowing the
answer to everything. By claiming to be telling the truth, a person decides that theirs
is the only answer, which can't be true, surely.
I have often felt that liars don't get enough credit for their creativity. I am a writer,
in case you hadn't noticed. When I told a tale to my teacher that Jeff smashed the
windows, I was told off and naughty. However, in writing a happy love story, loosely
based on myself and a girl from my past, or an account of an alien attack, I am
You may think that they are unrealistic examples, writing fiction is not an attempt to
deliberately deceive, whereas telling your wife you worked late could be a conscious
diversion from the truth.
Telling anything to anyone plays on assumption; sarcasm, for example, doesn't count
as lying, as you assume the person can deduce that you are not trying to be truthful.
But you also have to quickly decide what level of information your interlocutor is ready for. In other words; their 'need to know.' Who are we to decide such an important thing?
Our greatest thinkers have argued over wrong and right throughout history and never
been able to agree on a final solution.
Morality is complex, the reason it has never been pinned down is because it is, in
its nature, elusive. Even at the end of time, once every possibility had played out,
nobody could say that any one action was 'the right thing to do' because that makes
a mockery of every little emotion felt or lesson learned along the way.
So, with that I return to the subject of memory. Every person absorbs and retains
information in a different way but, by and large, survival has taught the mind to
remember what it 'needs' to know. The main reason behind pupils in class being
distracted or uninterested is that they feel that the lesson doesn't apply to them. A
good teacher knows how to make their message relevant or even necessary to their
If a person had woven an intricate web of little fictions around their self, then it would
be in their best interests to learn it by heart, to avoid embarrassment or prosecution,
whatever the case may be. At least someone telling porkies knows that they are lying
on some level, but who is to say which is worse?
'I'll be home after this drink,'
'I've been thinking about you all day,'
'Oh, it was no trouble at all,'
We all tell ourselves lies every day to make ourselves or others feel better. And
what's wrong with that?
Will Conway 8 June 2010
NB I'd like to point out that, if you have some vision of me as some model housemate
making tea for the others every morning, I have given you the wrong impression.
Was that a lie, or you, the reader, making an assumption based on the information
Still, with that said, I should clarify that it was an exception rather than a rule. I am
treated to this far more often than I deserve. Thanks Jo!