The Challenge of Honesty.
I sympathize with Donald Trump. I really do. In one respect. Donald Trump is a constant, unrepentant liar. And until I entered sobriety, so was I. As I’ve written many times, honesty is the first casualty of alcoholism, and I lied unremittingly in order to get what I wanted. But honesty really and truly comes in many flavors.
I thought of myself as an honest person, even though I lied all the time. How? Alcoholics in recovery talk about “cash register honesty”. I was cash-register honest. You could leave me alone in a room of uncounted $100 bills, tell me no one was watching, and no one will ever know, but please don’t take any. And I wouldn’t. I thought that made me an honest person.
And while I lied about my drinking – well documented on this blog – that’s not the kind of lying I sympathize with Donald Trump about. I’m talking about a different kind of core-self dishonesty. The kind of lying we do to be accepted by others. I think this kind of dishonesty explains all kinds of toxic behaviors that people rationalize to themselves. I did.
The kind of lies that I sympathize with Donald Trump about are not the ones he tells reporters to gain power. They’re the ones he tells his rallies. The ones he tells his close associates. They’re the same lies I told. The ones my mother tells. That impulse to take a great story you hear and make it about your own family so that you seem more interesting.
The impulse to say you agree with whomever is currently being adulated so that you’ll be reflected in the glow, part of the group. Even if you don’t. The impulse to go along with a crowd that’s wrong – to participate in a mob. The lies you tell when you take the pulse of a room and determine what you need to say to be popular. To be accepted. To be seen as valuable.
These impulses – this need to be accepted and promoted, to receive attention and praise – are the sourcewaters of lies told reasonlessly. Told off the cuff. Unremembered because to us they are unremarkable. The truth value was never what was important about them. They were just tools to wedge me into an open space in the crowd that wasn’t quite me-shaped. I lie to reform myself into something that I think you’ll value more.
Not because I’ll get something from you. Because you valuing me is what I get from you.
They are lies told from fear and isolation. They are the reason I have a story to top yours. They are the reason I have an experience that matches the situation you’re describing. They are why I’m always talking. Because I need you to see value in me. I need you to think of me as someone with something to contribute.
This need is why I understand plagiarists and other imposters- we all have our own mediums of lies, but the purpose is the same. Consider James Frey – why would he make up the book and call it a memoir? Consider Jonah Lehrer – why would he fabulate all those quotes? Consider Julie Miller – why would she cut corners in races with no prize money? People assume it was financial fraud of some kind – glory.
I don’t think so. I think it’s a need to be accepted into a society we feel like we cannot truly be a part of. Because we know we have rotten souls. We are insufficient. I’m not talking about impostor syndrome. I’m talking about being actual impostors. We are not as good. Not as smart. Not as capable. We know this. But we desperately want to be part of the group that is.
So I understand Donald Trump. He’s a lot like me. Not as swift, not as talented, not as successful as the peer group he wants to be in – political and industrial captains. So he lies and pretends and cheats and probably makes deals with Russia to advance his position. And now I have to live in this nightmare – someone who is like me will be our president.
I still feel every impulse to lie and cheat and inveigle myself into groups that are more august than I’ve earned a place in. I know because I prove it when I am admitted, when I see the regret and chagrin of the people who’ve invited me to join them in rarefied places. But in sobriety I’ve found a way to stop the lies, at least. Even if I cannot yet accept the truth about who I am with grace and dignity.