On January 17, Lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey that yes, he had used performance-enhancing drugs during his career as a cyclist. He not only denied such behaviors for many years, but also, as Bob Costas put it, "vilified all of his accusers," sued them, and even defamed them.
As might be expected, there has been a public outcry as well as significant media coverage in response. Of particular significance, however, is that Armstrong is now being sued by several readers of his bestselling books.
Rob Sutzman and Jonathan Wheeler are suing Armstrong in response to the perception that they've been deceived by the athlete and accuses him and his publisher of fraud and false advertising. As reported by CNN, the lawsuit states that Sutzman and Wheeler bought Armstrong's bestselling books It's Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts "based upon the false belief that they were true and honest works of nonfiction when, in fact, Defendants knew or should have known that these books were works of fiction."
The lawsuit is purported to say that had Sutzman and Wheeler known that Armstrong's account of his victories in the Tour de France were fictional, they would have enjoyed it less. This lawsuit, the public response to Armstrong's confession, and other admissions of deception by culturally prominent figures of the past touches on the subjects of honesty, integrity, and how the perception of truth plays a role in all of our lives. This development raises an important question: Is a lie deserving of such derision and scorn?
In our culture, people tend to regard the telling of truth as something to be valued as a noble act. In the apocryphal story about young George Washington confessing to chopping down the cherry tree, his father states that "such an act of heroism in [his] son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold." According to this story, it is less significant that we chop down trees or dope up for the Tour de France; it is more significant that we lie about it. Truth earns us praise, deception earns us lawsuits over the reading of a book.
The yogic path teaches us something different about truth. When a flower attracts a bee interested in its nectar, each organism is fulfilling its role as part of the natural order of life. Bees are attracted to nectar, plants are attracted to the sun, flies are attracted to fruits -- be they of purest gold or not. Given that we as organic beings also fit into this natural order, nature has laid out a course of perfect truth for each of us to find within ourselves. We feel worse when we intoxicate our body, we feel good when we eat natural foods in small amounts. The same entity that compels the world's plants and animals to behave as they do compels us to seek balance. But living honestly extends beyond just physical balance: Each of us has the opportunity to tune into who we are so as to live purposefully. Here is where we can claim the perfection afforded by our presence in this world.
But what is the difference between living in this truthful state of natural balance and labeling others as noble or unprincipled? When we assign moral values to another person's relative honesty, we are simply placing expectations on them to behave a certain way. And when we create expectations for other people's behaviors, we are relying on their actions to make ourselves happy -- or at least protect us from unhappiness. Why does someone else's lies hurt us? Because we live in the fear of living dishonestly in our own lives, our scorn for them is simply a reflection of our own suffering. Armstrong vilified his accusers because of his own fear of being caught in his lies. Why would Sutzman and Wheeler disturb their peace for something that would soon be in the past? Because they are facing struggles in their own lives.
The yogic practice of truthfulness, called asteya, refers to abstention from falsehoods -- either expressed to others or experienced within -- in favor of that which abides by nature's way. But rather than pursue it as a way to attain a label of nobility and fruits of purest gold, it is a way to avoid the burdens of holding onto lies. It is a way to live in greater health, contentment, and peace.
According to his interview, Lance Armstrong lied about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. He wrote books about it in which he deceived others. But deception has been a staple of storytelling for many generations. Even Parson Weems, the biographer who told the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, borrowed the anecdote from fiction -- and yet that story was about the merits of telling the truth! Many people might share Sutzman and Wheeler's position that Armstrong's fraudulent actions are worthy of anger -- if not outright litigation. But as the yogic practice of truthfulness teaches us, a person who goes to such great lengths to deceive others has invested their entire life in telling a story that isn't true. Each day that Lance Armstrong maintained his deception was another day of his life that could have been committed to finding greater peace and balance. This was his burden, and his loss.
Let us not give the Lance Armstrongs of this world our anger and our lawsuits. This only leads to them experiencing more pain and clutters our own minds up with burdensome thoughts. Let us give those who suffer in life our compassion -- no matter their actions.
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