I suppose I’m not the only person my age who grew up watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and the like. Remember the episode about Aunt Bea and the pickles? The one in which she makes a batch of pickles so disgusting that no one can eat them; and yet everyone praised them and pretended to gobble them down, causing her to make yet another batch. It has always stuck in my mind as an example of how evil the nicest people can be. Aunt Bea’s beloved nephew and dearest friends consistently lied to her, encouraging her to waste her money, time, and resources producing more and more of her abominable pickles. And then they had to engage in sneaky and deceitful behaviors in order to dispose of said pickles without having to actually eat them. All in the name of “not hurting her feelings”. Obviously, it hurt her feelings far more to realize how everyone had been treating her in the end. But the Mayberry folks never seem to learn from their mistakes. I’d estimate that more than half of the plots of this family sit-com revolved around similar lines: lies told with the best of intentions, only to backfire by the end of the half hour. “The Andy Griffith Show” is the sit-com that struck me most as a teen struggling with moral issues, but I’m sure that most if not all TV shows use this same formula. Why is this? Because, I think, Americans buy into this way of thinking: it’s okay to lie if it’s for a good reason.
Now, I’m not saying that we should be heedlessly cruel with the truth, either! One need not say, “Good grief, Aunt Bea, have you tasted these things? They taste like kerosene! What’s the matter with you, old woman?” Tact is a skill one should learn early on. “I’m sorry, Aunt Bea, but I just don’t care for your pickles. They’re a bit strong for my taste. What do you think?” No, what I’m talking about is being caring enough to tell people the truth, instead of being cowardly liars. It doesn’t help anyone to perpetuate a falsehood. Truth may be embarrassing or uncomfortable, or even hurtful. But lies are so much more so!
I can think of so many examples, but I’ll pull one out of a hat. I was once asked to step down from a volunteer teaching position without any explanation and asked to serve refreshments instead. Well, I was okay with that. Maybe, I thought, there was a surplus of teachers and they wanted to give others a chance at teaching. Maybe they really needed a snack lady. But I soon realized that there was, in fact, a shortage of teachers, and no real need for anyone to be exclusively in charge of snacks. I went to the head honcho to offer my services in teaching one of the teacherless classrooms. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then finally admitted that someone had told him that I hate children and was tired of teaching, and so he thought he’d “let me off the hook”. He hadn’t said anything because he didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Can you imagine? If he’d only come to me and asked me about this, it could have been straightened out in a second. But his first inclination was to lie to me rather than risk embarrassing me.
Do we teach our children to tell the truth, tactfully of course, but fearlessly? It takes a lot more courage, sometimes, to be truthful. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, whether we are really lying to save someone’s feelings, or because we’re afraid of causing a row or making a scene. Maybe we are afraid of the responsibility of being truth-sayers. I’ve been tempted, I admit, to fudge on grading a paper just to avoid the tears and the struggle to get the child to rework a math problem or re-diagram a sentence. But is that really serving the child? Does it really help a child to pat him on the back and say “good work!” when you know his work is substandard? Point out the things that are correct and praise them, of course, but don’t let poor work slide when you know the child could do better.
Are we setting a good example of truth-speaking for our kids? Do they hear us say one thing to our friends and relatives, only to say something else behind their backs? Do they hear empty, meaningless praise from us when they know perfectly well they don’t deserve it? It’s a hard thing, to live in truth, especially when it seems a lie would be kinder or would prevent hurt feelings. I’m not certain, really, that telling everything I know is necessarily a good thing. Is keeping silent another form of lying, or is it just being tactful? I don’t know all the answers, to tell you the truth! Just something to think about.