It comes as something of a shock to me that my life has been fundamentally improved by lying. I don’t do well with being lied to. I am infinitely patient and gracious and long-suffering (my students may beg to differ) right up to the point where they lie to me, at which point I have to remind myself that hitting them will cost me my cushy job. Ironically, I was influenced to begin lying by the single most honest person I know, one who is constitutionally unable to lie: my wife Laura. I learned the depths of her honesty during a sales demonstration in which a huckster we nicknamed Smiling Jack was touting the “Whopper Chopper,” which could convert any food product into any other food product, e.g. carrots into carrot sticks, potatoes into Julienne fries, or broccoli into Snickers bars. It was like kitchen alchemy, but without all the caldrons and toxic smoke. NOTE: like so many terms, this product name has apparently acquired a crude slang meaning in the decades since, so do not google it. I’m not joking. Kevin, this means you.
Jack was eagerly shoving food into the front of the device, and different food was coming out the back, and he was talking non-stop about the awesomeness as he cranked with one hand and shoved with the other, and his wife/assistant was smiling in the background and nodding, misty-eyed about how blissful the WC had made her life. I, on the other hand, was on pins and needles, certain that at any moment we would see one of Jack’s bloody fingers slide out of the back of the WC, and then it happened. No, not the bloody finger. Jack paused dramatically, looked directly at Laura, smiled his serpent-like smile, and asked a simple question: “Now wouldn’t you like to have a Whopper Chopper?”
Silence descended on the room, and all eyes fell on Laura, as we waited for the obvious answer, the scripted answer, the one that we all knew you were supposed to give, the one that Jack had asked for (and received) a thousand times, the polite answer that is probably a lie, but surely just a tiny white lie, a microscopic lie that even the weakest among us would deliver without breaking a sweat. Laura listened, considered the question, then said the unthinkable: “Not really.”
No US military invasion has ever equaled the shock and awe that this reply engendered. As Jack’s wife wept quietly, he fell silent for the first time in an hour as his mind raced to locate a reply to this completely unexpected and unwelcome demonstration of blatant, bald-faced truth-telling. Jack eventually recovered, and the evening concluded without a hitch. We did not buy a Whopper Chopper (or anything else), but that was the day I learned that my wife will not lie, no matter how high the stakes may be. If the bad guys ever have a gun pointed at my head and ask her if I am the one who put the milk jug in the trash can and not the recycling bin, I am a goner.
So here’s the lie, the one that she shared with me, the one that I know is false, and the one that will (at absolutely no cost or obligation to you) change your life:
People are doing the best they can.
Here’s how it works. You are standing in line to get your double-whipped cappuccino and the young man working the register is making a mess of things. You are in a hurry, and he is obviously incompetent, and you find yourself focusing on him and his inability to do what you want. This is where you tell the lie (not to him, but to yourself): “he’s doing the best he can.” Maybe he was not trained well, or maybe he has a learning disability, or maybe it’s really a cash register problem, or maybe he was up till 4 am with a sick child, or maybe his wife died last week but he has to work anyway so he can eat. The specifics don’t matter, but this lie gets you past that whole ugly judgmental idea that this guy is somehow, for some reason, slacking off or trying to harsh your mellow, or lazy, or stupid, or on drugs, or a Sooners fan. Try this for a week, while driving, shopping, listening to people, reading emails, or any other time you come face to face with humanity. Not only will you feel better about the people you meet, you will also feel more grateful, as in, “Thank goodness I don’t have to provide phone tech support or serve coffee for a living.” Guaranteed to change your life, or double your money back.
This idea comes from a book called Rising Strong by Brene Brown. Brown was so skeptical of this therapist-suggested perspective that she began randomly asking people if they believed it, and here is what she found. First, the people who tell themselves this lie know it isn’t always true, but in general they assume that most of the people, most of the time, are doing the best they can. In contrast, those who say people are not doing their best are emphatic, absolutely certain that others are slacking off or, as we sometimes say around here, just plain ornery.
Here’s the magic in what she found: those who cut other people some slack tend to do the same for themselves, while those who were merciless to others are equally self-critical. In other words, patience with others and patience with yourself tend to go hand in hand. The difference is staggering: I can walk away from the counter angry and frustrated and ready to fire off an ill-advised email to Starbucks corporate…OR….. I can smile at a fellow human being and leave feeling grateful for what I have (and what I don’t), all for nothing more than choosing to believe a tiny little fib. The irony is that when you start treating others as if this were true, they are going to feel better and treat you better in return, which is going to make your day better as well.
Maybe this is common sense for most of you, but it was a hard realization for me. A smile, the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the best about others can all take the edge off a world that has some pretty sharp corners.
Maybe it’s time to start lying to yourself a little.
‘In the same way you judge others, you will also be judged.’
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