I wrote the following piece almost ten years ago. It says as much about who I was then as it does about the changes in the world since then.
I was raised with the firm belief that honesty was a thing to be valued. Telling the truth was the most important thing a man could do. It was, in fact, what separated the good people from the bad, the honorable from the dishonorable. But over the course of the last 38 years, I’ve begun to change my mind.
The truth, I have discovered, is highly overrated.
When you’re young, it’s acceptable to tell an inappropriate truth. Sometimes, it’s even considered cute.
“What’s wrong with your face,” you may ask a severely burned man at the bank.
The question “Are you a man or a woman?” is directed at the unfortunate looking person in the checkout lane at the grocery store.
Even the cable repairman might be greeted at the door with the news, “My Mommy isn’t wearing any panties.”
As adults we accept these indiscretions because we understand that young children don’t know any better. They don’t realize that the truth can be harmful or embarrassing. They just tell it like they see it. As adults, however, we’re supposed to know better. We’re rarely asked to tell it like we see it.
When your boss asks for your opinion on a pet project, you tell him, “You know, I think you’ve got something there” because if you were to be honest, it would probably sound something more like, “You poor, dumb bastard. It’s a good thing your family owns the company.”
But of course you don’t say that. You hold your tongue; remember how much college tuition is going to cost you in say, ten years, and you smile, and tell a version of the truth.
Like when your wife tells you that her sister is coming to visit, you know the one who has no children but thinks it’s her job to tell you how to raise yours? You say, “Wow, that’s great honey. So, uh, how long is she stayin’?” Of course the truth would be something along the lines of, “Really? Hey not to change the subject, but where did you put those painkillers we had? Uh, you know the ones we got when the horse broke its leg?”
In “The Wedding Crashers”, a movie about two men who lie as a matter of principal (and who seem to make out quite famously because of it) we are told that the truth doesn’t have versions.
Well, it certainly used to.
It used to be that the truth was only basically true. We didn’t need it to be all true, just mostly true. We didn’t need the unvarnished truth. The unvarnished truth was too raw; too crass. The fact is we liked a little varnish. It made us shine.
In the early days of baseball, long before strikes and steroid scandals, reporters told a version of the truth. They traveled with the players, shared meals and hookers with them and called them friends. And while this led to an intimate understanding of their flaws, they chose to focus on a ballplayer’s strengths. And by focusing on the best parts of each man, heroes were created.
For instance, we knew Mickey Mantle was a great ball player. We knew how many bases he stole and how many hits he had every game. We knew every thing there was to know about Mickey on the field, but what we didn’t know, was that he was a raging alcoholic off the field. The unvarnished truth was simply more information than we needed. We needed a hero that could shine and they gave us Mickey. All varnished up.
FDR, arguably one of the greatest presidents in this country’s history, would never have been elected had the public known he was handicapped. Here was a man who led a nation to greatness, defeated the Great Depression, challenged Hitler, and was the only American President to serve three terms in office. And while the fact that he was a cripple is undeniably true, it certainly wasn’t relevant.
So I say, lie to me. Tell me a story. Make me feel good about the world and my place in it. Give me a little mystery. I don’t need to hear about the fires, the robberies and the car accidents; the scandals or the affairs. I don’t need to know every detail of the lives of our politicians, actors and athletes, let alone the guy in the cubicle next to me. The truth is, the more I know about people the less I like them. Not the other way around.
I’ve found that a little mystery goes a long way. It’s your birthday? Congratulations. I’ll sing you a song, but I don’t want to know that you’re wife ran off the UPS driver, that your hemorrhoids are acting up or that you’ve begun wearing women’s underwear. It may be true, but it’s just a little too much information for me; too much truth. If I want that kind of truth, I’ll watch HBO.
So, as far as I’m concerned, I say give me a little less truth, a little less information I can’t use, and allow for a little more mystery.
Lie to me. I think we’d all be better off. After all, maybe the only truth we can truly count on, is that ignorance really is bliss.
So, here we are, 10 years later, and I guess I got my wish, because that’s exactly what the media and the politicians and the lobbyists have been doing for the last decade. Lying to us. Except they fucked up my dream. They didn’t give us more heroes, they gave us more villains, and the problem is too many of us seem to be okay with it. Too many of us are just fine being lied to. But it’s not just a matter of the truth being uncomfortable, by ignoring the truth, or choosing to believe our own truth in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, we are hurting others.
I for one am holding out for more. I want a better world and I’m willing to fight for it while I still can.
I’m admittedly an odd combination of cynical pessimist and romantic optimist. It causes me to recognize the worst in the world but hope for the best in people. It’s not easy and it’s not always convenient, or even consistent.
The planet is literally falling apart. We’re being battered by storms, killed by our own guns, destroyed by wars, starved by famines and drowned in floods. Meanwhile, we’re fighting about whether or not we should trust an eight year old fleeing violence with his family to live amongst us because his skin is brown and he worships God differently than we do. We’re denying climate change because we don’t want to pay more for gas at the expense of famines, floods, hurricanes and rising seas. We refuse to accept the fact that guns are killing more people domestically than wars do because we like to play with guns.
The truth is, we need heroes again.
Not the kind that get shared on Facebook in pithy memes about a solider and his dog. Not the kind that demand justice by force like Clint Eastwood with a .45. Not the kind that spread hate by vilifying innocent strangers.
We need heroes again.
Where is the next generation of Ghandi’s and King’s and Mother Teresa’s. The ones who will be brave in the face of danger, who will speak out against injustice, who will sacrifice themselves if necessary for the good of the tribe. Where are they? Where is that action figure? Where is their movie?
We need heroes again.
We need heroes that will make us great again, but their names will not be emblazoned across a skyscraper made of glass and steel. They will not rule from a place of power. They will not lead armies or hold great wealth. Their names will be whispered in homes and churches and talked about on the street corner and the local bar.
I’m holding out for a hero.