“I wanted it so bad to change my life it was just overwhelming,” Elecia Battle told reporters with her head lowered. When asked directly if she had lied, Battle couldn’t seem to force out the obvious response. Her attorney diverted the question.
Surely, it’s tough to admit to lying. In fact, it’s much easier to tell a lie than it is to undo it. Some studies show that the average person lies up to seven times a day, but we hardly ever waste our time trying to undo these deceptions. It’s virtually unheard of for a person to reflect on their routine, recall telling their portly coworker that he or she didn’t look fat in those pants, and desperately dial the coworker’s number to purge their guilty consciences. It just doesn’t happen, even though some studies say that the average person lies up to seven times per day.
For so many reasons, lying has become part of our daily lives. Sometimes we lie to make others feel good, and other times we lie to make ourselves look good. But the primary reason that our daily lies don’t bother us too much is that we rarely – if ever – get caught. No one has the time or desire to question the validity every insignificant statement of a conversation. At the end of the day, all is forgotten. Bigger lies, however, carry more of a risk. There are certainly times when we lie knowing full well that we are going to have to hastily cover our tracks and face damning evidence against us. We do it anyway.
Why? Most serious lies fall into one of two types: the kind that get us something, and the kind that get us out of something. Elecia Battle, whose comments are mentioned above, chose the former a few weeks ago when she claimed to be the $67.2 million Powerball winner. Battle, 40, came to the press claiming that she had bought a ticket, but lost it and said she recognized the winning numbers as the ones she had played. When the woman who actually held the winning ticket came forward and made her own claim, police and lawyers began an investigation into Battle’s story.
But the scrutiny lasted only a few days, ending with the press conference in which Battle broke down and owned up to her lie. When the media frenzy that surrounded the puzzling case died down, Battle was left looking like a pitiful would-be swindler.
But as an episode of the sitcom “Friends” showed two weeks ago, even America’s most beloved television couple will use lies to get what they want. Monica and Chandler, who have been trying to have a baby for several months, secure an interview at an adoption agency. The meeting goes smoothly, except for one minor detail: the eager couple allows the birth mother to believe that Monica is a minister and that Chandler is a doctor. Overwhelmed by wanting a baby, Monica begs Chandler not to tell the impressed mother the truth, but he does it anyway. In a warming (and completely unrealistic) conclusion, the mother decides they can have her child anyway.
The endings of these two stories are very different; Elecia Battle walked away with nothing, and Monica and Chandler still got their prize. Still, both parties owned up to their fibs relatively quickly. It often takes much more time to get a confession from those who tell the lies designed to get them out of something, as some of the world’s most famous liars have demonstrated. One of the most memorable political moments of the ’90s had much less to do with politics than it did with a classic lie of denial. When President Clinton was first confronted with allegations of having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he balked and balked again. For months, the president refuted Lewinsky’s statements. Flanked by his wife and other supporters, Clinton looked into a camera and declared to America that he had never engaged in inappropriate activities with “Miss Lewinsky.” As the vigorous investigation into the accusations progressed, Clinton’s story began to falter. Finally, haggard and defeated, Clinton looked into the same camera and told the nation he had lied.
But Clinton isn’t even the most stubborn liar of late. Pete Rose, the former pro baseball player who was exiled from baseball for gambling, stuck by his story for 16 years. This month, Rose finally decided to come clean – and even made some money doing it. Rose appeared on several news programs, and sold his complete confession in his newly published book. Telling the truth after all these years may result in some extra cash for Rose, but no amount of profit can save Rose from the bitterness of those who supported him for decades.
Elecia Battle and Monica and Chandler never set out to be liars; neither did Bill Clinton and Pete Rose. Their actions were the products of desperation, quickly laid plans that seemed impenetrable at the time of their creation. All of the plans crumbled.
What many people don’t understand about lying, even when they ponder the consequences of getting caught, is that to those who catch you, you will always be defined by that lie. The mother who forgave Monica and Chandler will never forget their weakness, and Pete Rose loyalists are still throbbing with humiliation from the downfall of their hero. Lies, even those that have been retracted, never really go away.
On the upside, though, there is always something to be said for telling the truth, whether it’s after a minute or a century has passed. The most infamous frauds in history have shown that it only gets harder to admit to lying as time goes on. We may still tell lies of all proportions on every day of our lives, but the moments in we come crawling back to honesty show that we do, in fact, still have integrity. And when the initial dishonor that follows admitting a lie has passed, we will always find that the truth sounds better, feels better, and makes us better people.