On truth in a dystrumpian world.
Many years ago, my eldest son became a supporter of an English soccer team. Nothing surprising there, most of his classmates were fans too, fans of the same club in fact, as indeed were most male members of his extended families – what is it with Irish males and English soccer teams? Well i have a theory about that but its a story for another day. So my son, aged about eight, comes home from school and asks to watch a football match on the television that night. Soppy Dad says yes – how nice to sit and watch a match with my son, imagine years of sharing football highs and lows stretching out in front of us. After dinner and at about his normal bedtime, we sat down to watch the match. Forty-five minutes later, it was half-time and my son and i were struggling to stay awake, nil-nil and as boring a match as could be devised by haters of football. My son yawned and rubbed his eyes and looking up at me asked, “Is it over?”. This was the first match he’d watched. And I, that paradigm of honesty, that tired paradigm of honesty, said “Yes, that’s it, all over and nil-nil. Never mind, at least they didn’t lose. Now time for bed” Off we went, i tucked him in, remarked how nice it was to watch a match with him and went off to sleep myself like a man with a clear conscience.
Fast-forward almost twenty-four hours and we were eating dinner and my son looked at me and said, “That match wasn’t over, you said it was but the lads at school said United scored two goals in the second half. They won. I said no they didn’t, it was nil-nil but they were laughing at me”.
I apologised and promised never to lie to him again, a promise which backfired spectacularly about a year later when he asked me if Santa was real. I haven’t lied to him since but it hasn’t always been easy. I guess too he isn’t old enough to ask me existential questions. Its likely my true tests lie ahead.
The United saga reminded me of an occasion in my youth when i had lied with rather comical side effects. I was visiting my friend and the family were having a second breakfast, an extensive Irish fry, mouthwatering delicious. Delicious that is except for the fried tomatoes, i don’t think i’d ever encountered fried tomatoes before that day but i was heroically eating my way through them. Politeness was something we were taught, taught mightn’t be a strong enough word, as we were growing up. That and ‘eat what is put in front of you’ and ‘ always clear your plate.’ We were also taught about truth, being truthful, and the importance of telling the truth. That was a message that was hammered home on three fronts, home, school and church; but not in a philosophical way or even a spiritual way. It was ‘tell the truth or else’, lessons. The restricted world i grew up in didn’t have much space for anything other than the truth, or so i thought. My friend’s mother a kind and friendly woman asked me if i was enjoying the fry and i responded enthusiastically. Then she asked, “do you like the fried tomatoes?” Now our lessons about politeness and truth included what to do when the two collided; be polite whatever happens even if it involves sacrificing, in a small way, the truth. Such a manoeuvre even had its own classification in church dogma. It was classified as a ‘white lie’ i.e. a lie you tell for another’s benefit, not yours and one that didn’t do any significant harm to others. White lies did not even have to be confessed. So i lied, “Yes, delicious”, i said, knowing she was the cook. My friend’s mother looked around at her four sons and said, “see”. I saw very quickly, the four sons stood up with their plates and each announcing generously, “well in that case you must have my tomatoes too”, scraped their fried tomatoes onto my plate, passed them all on to me to deal with. I ate them all, my conscience informing me that it was a just punishment for telling lies. Even white lies have consequences i concluded.
Some thirty years later, i found that fried tomatoes were actually quite tasty and have been a fan ever since.
Some people say, and believe, “Things happen for a reason. Everything that happens to you happens for a reason”. The scientist and sceptic in me finds that difficult to believe. The idea of a personal universe geared towards helping us develop individually gets classified in my brain on the shelves marked ‘Fiction, up near the top in fact beside ‘Science Fiction’. I started studying philosophy largely to examine the concept of ‘truth’. I’m more knowledgeable now but scarcely wiser. Truth appears to have become more nebulous, harder to define and grasp, harder, even, to recognise.
My son quickly grew out of any interest in football – an awareness of truth more advanced than mine. A friend’s father visited last summer and played a game of table-tennis in the backyard. He couldn’t remember how to play although he was still proficient in batting the ball. My son explained the rules, all had changed since our visitor had last played. “Typical”, he announced, “i don’t play table-tennis for thirty years and they go and change all the rules”. I feel a little like that with white lies. The definition appears to have changed. Now it’s ok so long as it doesn’t do any damage, cause any harm, to the lie-maker, the lie-teller. I struggle to say ‘lier’ as when i was growing up telling a white lie didn’t make you a liar. I remember now the common expression, a fibber, a white lie was the technical term, a fib, the colloquial expression.
Nowadays, truth gets treated a bit like fried tomatoes did half a century ago.
Namaste my friends,