The Unexaggerated Life

The reason some people lie about themselves is obvious. Lance Armstrong about being all-natural. Bernie Madoff about safeguarding your money. Anthony Weiner about the fake hacker responsible for tweet-peddling his sexual wares. Just as it’s pretty clear that it’s the hubris of the powerful that makes these guys think they can get away with their transgressions, it seems equally obvious that they’re lying to cover up, and to avoid painful consequences.

Less clear is why accomplished people with loaded resumes mendaciously add new items, false “doings” that don’t cover up anything or add much. Did Bill O’Reilly really increase his already undeserved notoriety by lying that “I saw nuns get shot in El Salvador,” which he defends by claiming he saw pictures? Same question re falsely claiming he “saw Irish terrorists kill and maim,” and that he “reported on the ground from active war zones [like] the Falklands,” when the closest he got was Argentina’s capital 1,200 miles away? Ditto re: Hillary Clinton falsely claiming she came under sniper fire in Bosnia; Connecticut Senator Blumenthal lying that he served in Vietnam; Illinois Senator Kirk, though a real military veteran, lying about military awards; and, of course, poor old  Brian Williams, who now probably wishes that he’d been killed under the enemy fire he lied about. It’s the same question you’d ask billionairess Leona Helmsley who went to jail for penny ante tax evasion: with all that you’ve got guys, why lie about more?

For answers, I thought about looking to my own personal experience, which I’m desperately hoping isn’t unusual. I’m going to look at times when, I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve caught myself exaggerating or lying, and for no real good reason.

For example, I spent a few months (read four) in San Francisco in 1970, part of it (two months) living in a commune. It’s a part of my unofficial resume that I like because I was a hippie, and it doesn’t get hippier than living in a SF commune. However, I’ve seen myself morph my SF/commune time into as much as a year or more, essential because the truth — two months — sounds more like summer camp than a lifestyle commitment. In a similar vein, I have heard myself tell people about very pithy, acerbic one-liners that I say I’ve used to put people who I think are out-of-line in their places. Problem is, the only place some of these one-liners have been uttered is in my mind. Yes I thought them up. Yes they’re good. But I either wasn’t quick-witted enough to think of them at the time, or, if I did, wasn’t brave enough to issue them.

If I’m thinking clearly about the murky logic that underlies these exaggerations, I recall a discussion of exaggeration and lying about ourselves that occurred during an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Turns out this behavior is quite common among alcoholics, and that there’s a prevailing reason why. It’s that some people — apparently especially alcoholics — just can’t stop feeling ashamed of themselves, or that they’re unworthy or just not good enough.  So they try to fill those holes with exaggerations. Problem is, the exaggerations, rather than providing relief from feeling inadequate, only reinforce it.

Bill O’Reilly: deep down, profoundly inadequate?

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