Each of us seeks meaning, identity and structure in our lives. With that task comes the pursuit of authenticity in who we really are, as we strive to overcome the labels, aspirations, or projections that others may have for us. Often in life we see ourselves as the well-meaning, subtle lie told by others, or secretly pledged in our own minds over the course of our lives. For example, the phrase “Mom always thought I would be a doctor” turned out to be her aspirational statement that influenced the little white lie I told myself about what my career goals might one day become.
A reflective life is about sorting out these questions and challenging the lies we tell ourselves. At times it is our ego that creates the lie. “I am the best at what I do.” Other times, it is the morality or politics driven by our personal beliefs that set the lie. “Climate Change is not man-made because that man on Fox News said otherwise.” Our truths and meaning can sometimes be driven by the identities we seek. The labels we grow comfortable with – conservative, progressive, populist, intellectual – can Velcro a host of lies to our psychological needs to belong, identify or project.
It is human nature to lie to ourselves about others, and indeed, to kid ourselves about who we are. Some carry such internal lies to an extreme. Seinfeld character George Costanza famously said, “My whole life is a lie.” Anyone familiar with his television personality would agree, but how many of us confront our own tendencies to self-misrepresent the truth in our own lives?
Most of the time it seems OK to lie to ourselves. “I am not really that fat”, or “I don’t feel like I act that old”, when indeed we probably are or do. The late comedian George Carlin said, “The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.” As we try to find the meaning and identity in our lives, we sometimes get stuck in these small lies. In the communities in which we live, we often romanticize or promote the ambiance of our neighborhoods beyond the realities on the ground. “We are a tight-knit Southern community where everyone knows everyone” may in fact describe more of a regional aspiration for a bygone era than the reality on the ground of a transient and sprawling suburb. American society more often resonates with wishful thinking about our cultural and religious roots as a nation and our past stature in the world than with present-day realities. The assumptions embedded in these false perceptions can influence everything from community property values to national public policy.