Honesty is in the Ear of the Beholder
I told a lie today.
It was an innocent lie. It neither served a purpose nor caused injury. The sort of lie that floats out of your mouth and hangs suspended in mid-air momentarily and then pops, disappearing and leaving no trace.
It was 100% inconsequential and unnecessary. So why did I do it in the first place?
In some ways it happened because I was being too honest. I went to our local farmers market, to pick up some ingredients for dinner. I was passing by a vegetable stand when a man asked me what I wanted to buy. I said, in French, “Well…I am going to make borscht.” He looked at me quizzically and I repeated, “I want to make borscht.” His eyes widened and I repeated the word borscht, realizing of course that he had no idea what that was, and it wouldn’t matter how many times I said it or how clearly I annunciated the strange array of consonants.
He then asked me if I was speaking in French or not, at which point I flushed violently, and stammered, “Of course I am speaking in French, well actually not exactly in French because borscht is not a French word, it’s a soup, a Russian soup, well not just Russian, also Polish and Ukrainian and probably some other places. But the word borscht is Russian. So I guess I wasn’t exactly speaking in French, since 25% of the words in the sentence “I want to make borscht” were Russian.”
He looked even more unconvinced that I was in fact speaking French.
At this point my heart was racing from the immense vulnerability of not being understood, and I was hit by the queasiness that accompanies me in moments of trying and failing at something.
He peered at me and asked (though it was phrased more as a statement), “So, you’re not French?”
“No, not at all,” I said and attempted a breezy laugh.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m Spanish.” (In case you hadn’t guessed, that right there was the lie.) “From…the…south. The south…of Spain.” (And that was me continuing to lie).
“Oh,” he said. “From blahblahblah?” (blahblahblah being some Spanish region that I didn’t quite catch and maybe have never actually heard of).
And I nodded vigorously, “Yeah, right near there!” (more lying!)
He smiled and said that he was Moroccan, from the north, so we were neighbors. We chatted for a few more sentences. I bought beets, onions, potatoes, leeks and carrots, and left as quickly as possible, before he could ask me any more questions that would expose me as the lying fabricating fibber I had suddenly become.
As I disappeared from the view and therefore potential scrutiny of the Moroccan (I could imagine him suddenly saying to himself, “But wait that’s not how Spanish women walk!” or “Hold on there, why is her hair cut so symmetrically and only one color – she couldn’t possibly be Spanish!” or something equally ridiculous), I felt utterly bemused by what had just happened. I certainly hadn’t intended on, wanted to or needed to lie…why on earth had that come out of my mouth?
And not only that – why didn’t I feel bad about it?
In fact I actually felt strangely empowered by my lie…sort of warmed up, shielded, strengthened.
It felt like I’d gone into the market all raw, vulnerable and squishy, and suddenly I’d found some sort of magical armor. I felt light and free.
To provide a bit of much needed context – this trip I took to the market was practically the first time I’d left the house and ventured into town since my cat died. I was not at my best.
A few weeks ago my precious, delightful, amazing cat got very badly hurt, and after struggling for a few days ultimately had to give up the fight. I was in another part of France at the time of his injury, and I rushed home by train – but I didn’t make it in time to see him again alive. It was a totally unexpected tragedy – very hard to digest and accept because it went so against my hopes and expectations; he was only 3 years old, and I thought he and his sister would be with me for the next 15 years. We were a family – he was my cat child.
I don’t really want to try and explain here just how much I loved that cat, or describe the intensity of my grief or the horrible hole his absence has created in our lives. I don’t want to try to explain how the loss of an animal can be as intense as the loss of a friend or family member, or justify the difficulty I’ve had functioning on a normal level – eating, sleeping, socializing, working. Let me just say I am devastated, heartbroken.
When I am going through difficult things, my tendency is to withdraw from the outside world. I feel singularly incapable of presenting a happy or normal face in public when I am going through highly emotional moments. I am not very good at being reserved, at keeping the private thoughts and feelings to myself. I find it almost physically painful to have something important going on (good or bad) and to have to hide it. So if I am deeply depressed or in the middle of intense grief, while I am CAPABLE of going to a party and putting on a bright smile and saying “great” when someone asks me how I am, I feel sick doing so.The act of hiding my feelings and pretending things are fine can feel physically painful. I’d rather stay home – and so when I’m going through stuff like that, that’s exactly what I usually do.
When I am feeling squishy and emotional, doing something simple like going to market can seem tremendously challenging. In the market I am somehow required to exude personality, even if it’s only minimally – and there are moments that inevitably come up where I have to choose whether to be sincere or not; being sincere feels dangerous and vulnerable, while being fake feels painful.
Because of this, I probably wouldn’t have left my apartment for several more days at least – but we ran out of things that I could creatively combine into something vaguely edible. So I ventured out hoping to avoid all but the most basic verbal exchanges.
I have been trying to understand why a lie materialized so unintentionally and yet so effortlessly in that particular moment, a lie that gave me a completely new identity. I think I felt a need in that moment to not reveal anything. I wanted a kind of anonymity, invisibility. I think in some way – in saying I was Spanish, I felt completely released, completely protected. Now I wasn’t myself at all. And in that way I no longer had to struggle between being too open and being insincere. Giving myself a new identity gave me complete invulnerability and no need to actually tap into myself at all.
I think on some level I was making it possible for myself to avoid the following conversation: “Where are you from?” “I’m American. And my cat just died.” Because that’s probably what I would have ended up saying, if I hadn’t said “I’m Spanish” instead.
To be clear – I am perfectly capable of feeling and acting like a normal well-adjusted adult human being. Just not ALL the time. There are certain periods of time when I feel OFF. It’s hard to explain – I feel raw, skinless, and absolutely certain that everyone that I walk by can see right inside me.
In these moments I tend to feel I really have no business leaving my apartment, because when I do I always end up feeling horrible due to my insanely neurotic response to every interaction. I ran into this problem a few days ago when I had to leave my apartment to go see my chiropractor for the first time in 6 months to fix a displaced rib. I described my discomfiture later that day in my journal:
“When I saw her and she asked how I was and I said fine there was this pause afterwards that felt increasingly awkward…and then after a certain number of seconds, I felt the need to fill in the space with, “I mean relatively speaking,” and I tried to form my mouth into a smile.
It was so hard for me to squeeze the word ‘fine’ out. “I’m fine.” But I’m lying! I’m not fine. And then I felt like an impostor…and I felt like she could see all the way through me. And in those few seconds of silence as she looked at me I was sure she could tell that there was something absolutely wrong with me. And in those few seconds, a reel of thoughts and feelings went through my head – most of which were totally, completely and utterly neurotic.
First of all I felt the awkwardness of not having been there for a long time – I felt guilty, like I had been untrue to her and our relationship somehow – like I was a bad patient. Like she was wondering if there was something wrong or if I’d just decided my body was no longer a priority.
And then I felt the tears welling up – the unspoken real answer NO I AM NOT OK MY CAT DIED! That thing I am not supposed to say to most people because that would be more awkward than comforting and I feel in a certain way that I do not deserve so much sadness, so much grief for the disappearance of this one little creature who has now been gone, has not existed for an entire 23 days…23 horrible, long, painful days…I feel people will think I am being indulgent in having daily breakdowns, tears falling, where it all feels surprising and fresh and horrible.
Besides – when she asked how I was – she meant my body, not my heart.
And in the how are you I felt the embedded question, the what have you been doing – to which I could only really answer truthfully – going through a year of loss, depression, and partial recovery paired with more loss. I’m still trying to figure out how to make myself do stuff…but I haven’t really managed to do anything yet. I track the inches, the millimeters I hope I’ve moved forward but sometimes the units of measure are so small that I can’t tell if it’s forward or backward or standing still.
And then I feel her thinking – why is this girl so awkward and raw, so not like other people, not put together, not neat and clean in her lines – why is she so wavy and permeable, like a jellyfish, like you could push molecules right through her, or take something right out of her, right from her and steal it away.
And then I imagine her judgment – wondering what I am doing here in this country, how all these months could have gone by since she last saw me and I have nothing to show for it but a lost house and a dead cat and a long history of tears and days of squishiness.
And I hear her switching into english and I imagine her wondering if I even know any french and wondering how a person could live in a country for years and not speak the language. Of course I do speak the language- but she’s never heard me so she must assume I don’t. And then I prove my ineptitude to her by misunderstanding when she wants me to lie down on my belly because she says the word in french and then she says both back and belly in english and I am not sure which she wants and so my brain freezes and I just go for one. And it’s wrong – and I feel like I am showing her evidence of how I clearly don’t even understand easy french (but I do! I speak advanced French! I promise! I want to tell her – but then I know that if I tried to speak with her the pressure would be too much and I’d stumble all over myself and sound like a 3 year old). and how this is clearly evidence of not only my lack of motivation and general intelligence, but also proof of my inadequacy on pretty much every level. What a stupid, pathetic person…so supposedly smart and yet so useless! Hasn’t even learned French (oh but I have I haveI have!)
And then I lay there feeling horrible – like an absolute complete and utter failure. All because I turned on my back, not my tummy.
Of course it’s not like I feel this horribly insanely neurotic and insecure all the time – but it’s a vicious cycle on a day like today where I am already worn thin by grief and then just didn’t really get anything done. I already felt a bit defeated, a bit frustrated. I think if I’d managed to spend a few hours writing, putting something together, putting something out there, I would have felt more immune…but on days like this I have no shell – I go out of my house as slug-woman. I feel faceless, formless, yet ugly, squishy, permeable, easily damaged, and generally off-putting.”
Luckily I didn’t actually tell the chiropractor how I was really feeling!!
I would say that in general I usually don’t lie enough. Lying, or at least severely disguising the truth is a necessary part of functioning in public and I am not always as good at it as I would like to be. It is hard for me to hold my cards close – it goes very much against my nature – I tend to be very open about my opinions and the things I’m going through – to a point where I sometimes reveal things that I don’t actually WANT to reveal, and often to the wrong people. If I am not really paying careful attention and actively and consciously exercising my filtering capacity, I have the very bad tendency of just letting whatever is on my mind come tumbling out, and saying what I actually think about things, even when it is totally inappropriate. For example, I once asked a man whose OCD had been described in great and hilarious detail to me by his wife, if I could see his closet because I’d heard so much about how he keeps his shirts folded. Or that time I asked a young Frenchman that I had just met if, given that he said there was nothing he particularly liked or was passionate about, he had found any compelling reason to continue living (his response was that he asks himself the same question every day.) Or once a friend of mine was talking about potential baby names for some time in the future and mentioned a name she liked which I said I thought was just horrible, like a little crunched up old woman who smells like mothballs and likes to crochet doilies. A year later my friend HAD a baby, and named it the very name that I had been so unfortunately honest about. Awkward.
I was surprised by how completely unrepentant I felt after lying. But I knew that in a few weeks the Moroccan man wouldn’t even remember me – that I’d be able to go right back up to his stall, buy more beets and onions and he’d have no recollection of having met me, let alone where I said I was from.
If it makes no difference to anyone, if no one is really listening, is it still a lie? And if it doesn’t stick, but drifts away and vanishes, does it even matter?
As children we are taught that lying is unethical, but as adults certain kinds of lying are not only expected but frequently required of us. Lying is part of what we are trained to do all the time – we are required to learn how spin narratives into selective and twisted truths.
And when you run into acquaintances who ask how you are, they don’t actually want to know. We are supposed to say “I’m good,” or at worst “I’m fine,” no matter what is actually going on inside. And if you are honest, unless it is a good friend, it is bound to be awkward.
And when you meet new people most of them don’t ACTUALLY care where you’re from, what career you define yourself with or how you spend the days of your life. They just ask to keep life moving, to keep the awkwardness at bay, the horrible realization of our own solitude and how very difficult it can be to connect, to love and be loved, to find ones tribe, one’s place, to actually be cared about – to have the things you say mean something to someone besides as a way to pass the time.
There is a lovely old gentleman who lives in my apartment building with an absolutely delightful puffy white mustache. Every time he sees me in the elevator or stairwell his face lights up and he gives me a wide and charming grin. He always has a kind word to say and I’ve always found him so adorable.
But lately I have come to notice that if we walk past each other on the streets of Pau he does not recognize me and never smiles. I tried many times to smile at him on the street, but he looks past me, uncomfortable, unsure why this strange young person is making faces at him.
It is only within the context of our shared building that he knows “who I am.” Something about this makes me very sad.
I think it is because it reminds me how much of an illusion connecting often is. We pretend connection, recognition, but really we are just finding quick and easy ways of categorizing one another, usually missing 99% of what is actually important, relevant or interesting about a person. I realize that it’s not just the mustache man, but most of the people I have met in Pau that only recognize me due to a specific context that defines me for them. “The girl who lives in that apartment.” “The lady with the cats.” “David’s girlfriend.” “The American.” “The journalist.” Etc. So very few people care to know more than enough to put you in a box, and put you neatly away.
How can one actually tell the “truth” anyway? Isn’t one always misleading people in some way? For example if I’d told the Moroccan that I’m American he would have immediately assumed all sort of things about me based on whatever his idea of being American means, most of which has next to nothing to do with my actual identity. There are so many things that I could say about myself that are true technically, but put me in the wrong box…a box I do not fit in, do not belong in. It is so hard, so impossible to pin the self down, and find an honest box to inhabit. I am not defined by my job, by my nationality, or by any other box. Neither are you.
It is so nearly impossible to be recognized for what you really are, and it often seems barely worth the effort to try. I think in observing myself actively lying in the market, I realized that it wasn’t that different from how we all end up behaving with one another most of the time.
That is why I want to learn more and more how to ask the questions that don’t just put people in predictable boxes, but give them the space to be themselves, to expand past the definitions of their career or spouse, nationality or gender, to surprise me, to show me something special if they so choose, something that defies my expectations and the predictions of their supposed definitions and designations.
And perhaps that is why I need, in the times of vulnerability and heartache, to come here to this space more often rather than shy away. Because my words and thoughts don’t put me neatly into any boxes, and I would have to believe that anyone who has read this far is not solely interested in putting me in a box, and putting me neatly away either.