When we lie to our neighbor, in actuality we are saying to him, "One of us has to die, and it's not going to be me."
Soren Kierkegaard wrote more than one hundred fifty years ago, in The Sickness unto Death, that the very thing a person does not want others to find out about him is that he has a self. This is the secret that a person will hide at all costs from all other people—not only that he has a self but that this self is none other than his own particular self. This is the despair of being oneself.
Nevertheless this person—this person who is all people—though he is ashamed to be known as his own self, does not want to be found lacking a self. To have no self at all would be almost as dreadful as to be found to be one's own particular self—so he invents a new one. He custom crafts the identity of the person he thinks he should be, the identity of that ideal person he always thought he should have been. And so this new identity—this finely crafted new identity—functions as a mask with which he faces the world around him. He acts and reacts according to his mask. He hopes that others will 'do unto him' according to his mask, not according to his true self which he tells himself is lacking in quality—definitely deficient and flawed.
Not only does the mask relate to others for him; the mask thinks for him. The mask knows that he was raised among right-thinking folk, knows he has a good education. The mask knows he has a sense of quality and propriety, knows that he knows right from wrong and knows that he knows. His civilization supports and affirms him—and his mask, especially his mask. Each day holds almost unlimited potential for building his dreams, for reinforcing his illusion. Sights and sounds, worries and cares, business and pleasure; everything fits into his plan. He makes them fit. People and places, pleasures and promises make him feel full. And his fullness feels right. And his rightness feels like life. And his life is full of lies.
A child, when she was born, was a particular person—a unique child of particular parents and of God. But now that she has grown up and taken her place in society she must not be particular anymore. She must be something; she does have choices. She has a choice to be either an A-type or a B-type, either a nurse or a songwriter, either a supermom or an ambition-driven business person. She has a myriad of choices, as long as she doesn't choose to be her self, her own particular self. The writer of this essay, who is my self, is begging for words just to describe this situation adequately but is not finding them. I could say that she is expected by herself and by others to hate her self in order that she fulfill herself. Or I could say that she is expected by herself and by others to love herself in order that she hate her self and in so doing fulfill herself.
I could say those things, but nobody would understand it (I don't understand it myself) so I will not say it.
When she was just two years old she learned that she had a self and that she was separate from her mom. She learned that she is not me and that she is not you. But our culture teaches that that is just a stage. It is a cute, laughable stage during which children are allowed to be themselves. Maybe they are even rewarded for being themselves. It makes for warm sentimental stories. But that stage should not last very long. For parent and child both believe, that like it or not, many years of training and shaming (both public and private) must follow—the goal being that the child's identity be broken or destroyed and an appropriate and acceptable false identity be installed in its place.
The teen years are the years when the child comes into his own as a false identity builder. He takes to heart the task that mom and dad gave him; now he does it for himself. Older boys and girls begin to feel poignant stabs of pain when their masks are cruelly ripped off or, worse yet, when they forget themselves and leave the mask at home like forgotten lunch money. So this child learns the artful economy of the false self. The bargaining, buying and selling, building and tearing down that will be his life.
The preserving of the chosen identity requires a person to position herself between reality and unreality. She knows that in theory she is a particular person, and a part of her really wants to believe that, but in the economy of the false self she feels that she must, in some way, back down from the position that she is a particular person, a self. It is an affront to her friends and to her image of herself if she is found to be holding her self as a particular. She cannot deny that she is not you but in order not to offend she must stipulate that she is not herself either. This is her concession for peace, but it is not really much of a sacrifice—after all, she doesn't like herself much. So it is no great loss; she wants to know who will miss her. Who will miss her? Who except one who loves her?
When one loves her he wants to know her. He wants to know her true self. He wants to love and care for her true self. He wants to mingle his soul with hers and enjoy her existence. When one loves her he puts her in an uncomfortable position. She wants to be loved but she does not want to be found out. She wanted to be cared for but she did not want to be uncovered. So, for the present, she goes along with the love and for the sake of love she reveals enough of her true self to give her lover some false hope. But when he gets too close she lies. At first she lies with shrugs and sighs. Then she lies with quizzical looks. And then she answers his questions with cute sounding, beautiful little lies. And she tries with all her subtlety to get him not to ask such searching questions.
The last thing she wants is to lose someone who loves her, but even deeper in her soul she does not want to lose her mask, her illusion. And so, since someone has to die (and it's not going to be her), she murders her lover. She murders him relationally, not physically. She drives him away or he stays where he is; still he is dead. She cancelled him with lies. He has become as easy to live without as an old, ugly piece of furniture in the attic.
Who are we that we can lie and live with ourselves, deceiving and dealing falsely so effectively and efficiently? How can we right-thinking people project this falseness on our neighbors without feeling the sting of conscience in our souls? How can we lie unless we have lied to ourselves. And, lying to ourselves we have believed ourselves and believing ourselves we are deceived. We believe we have no self, and that if we are found out we will be no one and have no guilt. And we are certain that the vestige of particularness we might still have is a just a tiny bit of virus soon to be extinguished.
A line from Bob Dylan says, "Who are you that I should have to lie?" I am saying, "Who am I that you should have to lie?" Who declared war? Who built the fortresses? Will it kill me to find you out? I don't think so. Will I be disillusioned? Yes, but unless I am disillusioned I will believe in illusions. And if I believe in illusions I will die deceived. And to die deceived is to die indeed.
© 2000. Joseph Perry, Greyfort Publishing.
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