A Little Lie From the Heart

All the recent public talk about truth and deception got me thinking about the phenomenon of lying. I wish I could say that from this day on, I'll never tell a lie. But here's what gives me pause: the story of my departed grandfather.
11/18/2012 05:13 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2013
closeup of a businesswoman with ...
closeup of a businesswoman with ...

If dysfunction is the winner of the 2012 presidential election, as Joseph Lelyveld predicted, then the enterprise of lying has to be a close runner-up. Even with the election behind us, accusations are still flying about who lied the "mostest" and "worstest." Truthfulness and "truthiness" became yet another dimension for measuring the candidates' performance and worthiness to hold office. Isn't it remarkable how one of the first bits of news analysis following a debate is the fact-checking -- in essence, who stretched or ignored the truth?

All the recent public talk about truth and deception got me thinking about the phenomenon of lying, about big lies ("They have weapons of mass destruction.") and little lies ("Why thank you, I've always wanted one of these!"). The results of big lies are obvious. But little lies? Slippery slopes. In his compelling Kindle single, Lying, neuroscientist Sam Harris talks about how even white lies are potentially harmful. When one person decides what's best for the other to hear, the balance of power and the dynamics of the relationship change. Worse, one lie can only lead to another. "Lying is the royal road to chaos," he says.

I wish I could say that from this day on, I'll never tell a lie. But here's what gives me pause: the story of my departed grandfather. He died right around this time of year, in fact. Gramps was in bad shape and was expected to be there for a while after surgery if he left at all. His spirits were low.

Gramps was parked in a bed on the windowless side of his room. On the other side, a young man was in traction following a motorcycle accident. His bed was positioned alongside a broad window with a view of the scene several stories below.

Despite their age difference, Gramps and his roommate became fast buddies, talking and laughing up a storm. Each day, the young man would diligently report to Gramps about the happenings in what he described as a park outside the window -- the birds, the squirrels, the fountain, the people. Gramps was particularly interested in the ongoing saga of a young, pretty nurse who regularly sat on a bench by the fountain and ate her lunch. One day, she was joined by a young man in a white coat and stethoscope around his neck. The doctor was awkward at first, Gramps' roommate noted, but after a few weeks became a regular lunch companion. The nurse and doctor talked, laughed, and occasionally held hands as their romantic relationship evolved. Nothing salacious here -- it was just plain sweet.

The unfolding story of the nurse and the doctor became my grandfather's private love story. It was way better than television; Gramps would listen intensely, nodding his head with each detail, sometimes smiling, sometimes expressing concern. The park report was clearly the high point of his day; it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say he lived for it. I think that the daily story sharpened his mental faculties, too. Since he couldn't see the action firsthand, his mind had to generate the imagery (kind of like a PG JenniCam without the webcam).

Gramps made surprisingly good progress and so did his roommate. After a couple more weeks, the younger man was well enough to go home. That night, Gramps asked to be moved to the bed by the window. It was pitch black outside, so he had to wait for morning to see the drama with his own eyes. When he awoke he immediately raised the shade and was startled to see nothing but an asphalt parking lot filled with cars and trucks. No birds. No squirrels. No fountain. No romantic interludes between nurses and doctors. Just blacktop and vehicles.

Was Gramps lied to? You bet. Did he care. Not a bit -- he chuckled when he told me about it. The young man had picked up on my grandfather's need for something that would carry him from morning 'til night, day to day, and week to week. To be sure, the story nourished Gramps in ways unimaginable. Gramps arrived as a dead man walking. And walked out to live another four feisty years.

You can argue that the roommates' little lies might have saved Gramps' life, and that the roommate acted out of empathy and loving kindness. Or, you might cynically argue that the roommate was getting off on a cruel joke. Or that he was well-intentioned, but took an unfair risk -- upon seeing the truth, Gramps might have gone into a deep funk that shortened his will to live.

No one will ever know, but I like to think of that lie as a gift, perpetrated with the best of intentions. If I'm ever in a position to render such a wonderful lie, I hope I'm creative enough to make it a convincing one.

I do think about the nurse and the doctor now and then. I wonder how their children are doing.

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