white lies

I think the most important spiritual commitment I ever made was to no longer tell any white lies.

I began this on a particularly decimated retreat in the middle of the Minnesota prairies in the darkest days of winter. I opened up the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and thought I’d begin with week one (I’ve gotten no farther).

Week One of the spiritual exercises asks you to choose one particular habit that you’d like to extricate—just one, and simply begin to notice how often you do that habit.

Forming habits is fun. Right now, in this pandemic, all we have is habits. Each day, I wake up and do the habits that I’ve been cultivating for the past eight weeks like my tomato seedlings. We are more at the mercy of our habits than we generally like to admit. Our habits make us who we are, the routines we inhabit each day. There has been something beautiful about a life that is made—mostly—of just habits.

But we do have the power to change. And change begins with attention—with waking us up out of being controlled by our habits into awareness of the habits we are doing. Before we can even begin to ask “are these habits good?” or “do I want to keep them?” or “are they making me happy?” we first have to notice our habits as habits. This is the goal of Ignatius’ first week

More than anything else—certainly more obvious sins like sexual selfishness or anger—letting go of the habit of lying has offered the greatest opportunity for growth. It opened up the deepest corrosive habit I cling to—grasping for control.

Lying exposes my discomfort with the truth outside my control. Lying—even the seemingly kind sort, that saves someone from discomfort or smooths over a social sin—is pernicious. It warps my ability to see the narrative of my own life and the life I’m creating. It’s a continuous act of control, a refusal to be human. To be human is to be subject to the contingent and erratic moves of my own heart and history. To be human can only be found in the truth. Lying consistently removes us from the heart of the human experience, which is sharing whatever it is we are—in all its quirks we can never quite control—with others.

Lying may not seem like a great hurdle to communion. It may, in some instances, seem to make relationship easier. But any moment that we reach for a lie to smooth over a disagreement or ruffled feathers or hurt, we could just as easily ask for forgiveness. We could submit ourselves to the mercy of our neighbor, rather than refuse, and hold onto our own pride.

We lie because we think we have to lie to save the feelings of others or our self-image in their eyes. When we stop, and begin to tell the truth—”I’m so sorry, I haven’t even left the house yet,” “I’m really tired and so we should wrap this up. But I’m glad we spoke,” “You’re right, I meant to send that important email to you and it slipped my mind. Let me do that now,” “I really think you should ask someone else’s opinion on that.”—we discover that the image we have in their eyes isn’t really dependent on the small little twinges of ego we cover with a lie.

It can be scary to throw oneself onto the mercy of our neighbor. But we’re already there. There is no way to live that is not a radical act of trust in those we love. The truth liberates us to see our condition as we are.

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