Truth or Dare

I once knew a man who was what can only be called a pathological liar.  I never knew when he was telling the truth.  It was a disorienting experience relating to him because, as a literalist I wanted to believe what others told me.  In this case you simply had no solid ground on which to stand.  Recently someone else who knew him (he died some time ago) asked me for some information about him.  I was at a loss to come up with anything.  Since he seemed routinely to mix fiction liberally with fact, I didn’t know where to start.  In this post-truth world we now inhabit, I fear this may become much more common.  Everyone lies from time to time, but when it is a way of life, well, even Jesus had a name for the “father of lies.”

It’s with a bipartisan sense of sadness that I lament how the Republican Party has completely backed up a man that they know is like this.  Intentionally or not, political leaders set the character of nations—just consider how often we think of Russia as Putin or North Korea as Kim Jong-un.  America has become the nation of lies.  Don’t believe me?  Maybe I’m lying.  See what I mean?  Often I tried to figure out what this man I knew was up to.  What was his endgame?  I couldn’t be sure I’d ever know, even if he told me.  Especially if he told me.  You see, I was quite young at the time, and the young often don’t have the experience to get to the truth.  And when the truth is bartered for power, well, the father of lies is lurking nearby.

Recently I finished reading M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.  This person I knew was in my mind quite a bit as I tried to sort out all the psychology being presented.  If I’m honest I know that even as a child I said this man was evil.  It was clear to me that he wanted to survive on his terms or no terms.  To do so, he believed his own lies.  Now I don’t know if he lied at work.  He had a job where many people depended upon him to carry out his tasks.  He seemed to do so conscientiously.  When not at work, however, he was back in the land where he felt the most comfortable, the land of untruth.  Recently someone again asked me about him.  I tried to recollect as much as I could, and like much of the world these days I answered, “I just don’t know.”

Let It Lie

At the grave risk of over-simplifying, the list is brief: destructive scapegoating behavior, intolerance of criticism, concern with public image, and deviousness.  These characteristics, back in 1983 (note well the next year), were widely considered the description of evil.  Now look at the White House.  What do you see?  I know that I’m reading into the current situation, but how can one not?  I have never read anything by M. Scott Peck before.  Growing up I saw The Road Less Traveled on many, many bookshelves of friends and clergy.  I recently picked up Peck’s People of the Lie because, along with Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, it convinced many in my generation that demons actually exist.  At the time, still pretty much a Fundamentalist, I didn’t require any convincing.  Reading Peck’s People, however, in the era of Trump is a frightening thing.  And not just for the politics.

I always find books by psychologists and psychiatrists difficult to read.  I admit to having had a less-than-ideal childhood, and although self-healing is possible such books make me think I should spend my free time in therapy rather than writing.  In any case, People of the Lie is difficult in another respect as well—the labeling of evil.  Peck advocated for the scientific study of evil.  Good and evil, however, have generally been considered values rather than facts.  Science studies the latter while religion and philosophy deal with the former.  Not that lines in the sand are intended to be permanent.  Still, what one person calls evil may not be what others call evil.  Peck focuses primarily on narcissism and laziness as sources of evil.  He may very well be right, especially with the narcissism aspect, but some of the patients he described certainly didn’t seem evil to me.

Many aspects of this book could be discussed on a blog like this.  No doubt many of them will be, in sublimated form, in future posts.  Books, however, are part of the context in which they’re read.  In Peck’s day, the great political evil still fresh in many minds was the Vietnam War.  Today’s world, however, is one where Vietnam, Watergate, and even to a great extent the tragi-comedy of the W administration have all been eclipsed.  The cult of personality headed by one of the most obviously narcissistic individuals this nation has produced makes what Peck labeled “evil” seem perfectly normal.  And those who have the authority to do something about it either sit idly by, or worse, use it for their own means.  Roads less traveled indeed.