Once, as a teenager, I came upon a baby bird while hiking in Valley Forge Park. He was hopping around amid the leaves and debris of the forest floor and chirping with loud, plaintive cries. I took that to mean he needed help. I scooped him up and took him home. My mother reminded me we were about to leave for vacation the next day and I couldn’t take the baby bird with me. So I dropped him off at the Veterinarian. They looked sad when they saw him. I lied and said I’d only be gone a day or two and then I would return to take care of the baby bird myself. I didn’t. I realize now that my actions were self-serving, careless and ignorant and I probably cost that baby his life. Looking back through the eyes of experience, the bird was a fledgling woodpecker and his parents were very likely nearby. This is the way with baby birds: they hop around for a while until they get better at flying and their parents care for them and feed them during this tender time – just out of the nest – as they learn to get by on their own. Baby birds need their parents to successfully make it to adulthood. No doubt, his parents watched it all unfold as I, a would-be do-gooder, kidnapped their youngster. I accepted no responsibility for doing it. I didn’t try to care for him. I didn’t even have to watch his sad decline. But my 17-year-old self told me I was doing the right thing; I was helping. That was a lie.
Lies are insidious things. Blatant, hateful lies are proffered to inflict pain; they are meant to deceive, harm and exploit using ulterior motives and false promises; such are the tools of con-artists and thieves. Thankfully, I don’t have much experience with these sorts of lies. More often, I encounter lies told by others that are born out of compassion and the desire to avoid pain; these lies are told to spare feelings and skirt hurtful truths. Compassionate lies seem sort of benign; such are the tools of loved-ones and friends.
The lies that cause the most damage are the lies we tell ourselves. Self-inflicted lies leave scars we do not perceive. They become part of our narrative and influence our beliefs. We devise elaborate stories to perpetuate the lies we tell ourselves, which often survive for decades – even a lifetime. They take on epic significance in the way our lives unfold. Lies become the myths we live by. They revisit us in our dreams and come round again and again in missed opportunities, poor decisions and failed initiatives to remind us how fearful and vulnerable we really are.
I tell myself lies: My life is balanced. I am whole. I am healthy in body, mind and spirit. I am not lonely. I am not afraid.
When my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer, I told myself lies: that he would beat the disease and we would live happily ever after. Ten years after his death, I was still telling myself lies. I believed we were still married. Our wedding vows included the phrase “’til death do us part” because we were hopelessly romantic and it was impossible to imagine that ten short years later death would part us. I could not bear the plain fact that his death put an end to the contract. I told myself it did not matter that he was physically absent — we were separated only by the thinnest of veils. We did not said goodbye, only “auf wieder sehen,” — until I see you again. I told myself these things for fourteen years. Then suddenly, in single a moment, I saw it clearly for what it was. A lie.
Denial is the most powerful tool in our arsenal for avoiding pain. By clinging to Carl’s memory, I failed to release him into the Divine Presence; I did not grant him freedom, nor was I free myself. What was once a strong and pure love became a weight that honored neither my husband nor the unique bond we shared. The lie had grown so big and powerful, it turned love into something needy and restrictive. Denial was a survival strategy that ironically led not to life but to death.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis weaves a tale that depicts hell as a place of our own making. Only by letting go of the lies we tell ourselves are we able to gain the freedom to be fully real and truly alive. And only by letting go of the things we cling to can we draw closer to the Divine Presence.
I finally let go of the lie...and took a step in a new direction.