Monday, September 24, 2007

its own reward

It's been said that everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues. Mine, without a doubt, is honesty. In general, I suppose, honesty is a desirable characteristic in the person who's telling us a story, especially if the story has no independent existence outside the words we're reading. I have to admit, though, that for what seems like an unduly long time I was enamored of unreliable narrators, a kind of My Last Duchess syndrome, where the stories I liked best, whatever their ostensible content, were really about deception and self-deception.

I gave a lot of thought to exactly how an author was able to signal the gap between what we were told and what we should believe, to how fiction could contain layers of truths, where we read a false story and, through it, could dimly make out the outlines of the true story, though, strictly speaking, because both stories were imaginary, neither one was true. Taken to its logical extreme, this becomes what's known as the Rashomon effect -- where it's not so much that the storyteller is not telling the truth, but that there is no such thing as truth and, therefore, all narrators are unreliable.

Still, I tend to think of myself as honest. Of course, it's easy to consider yourself truthful when you're surrounded by liars. My job is, on the surface, anyway, all about truth, about discovering truth, about separating truth from lies. I spend my time asking people long and complicated questions. "And then what happened?" I say, "Just tell me the truth." But they seldom do and I can't really blame them. The reason that they're talking to me is almost always because they have to and it's not as if the truth is likely to benefit them.

Here's what I've learned: those who are convinced of their own stories make the best witnesses; honest people tend to be hesitant, to correct themselves, to restate facts in slightly different ways, to misremember details. The general rule is that the more confident the speaker and the more convincing the story, the less likely it is to be true. But in considering this, take into account that I'm afflicted with what someone once called "the naivete of the cynical." I'm so sure that other people are dishonest that I'm deceived when they tell the truth.

13 comments:

slouching mom said...

Though I don't spend my days trying to ferret out the truth (except perhaps from my children), I too believe that people are dishonest more often than not. Call me a glass-half-empty kind of gal.

Carole said...

Niobe,
I so feel this. I'm always looking for the untruth in things.

I'm just now making my rounds...sorry I was so far behind. Sorry to hear about the surrogate. I'm sending lots of positive thoughts that the one that is meant to be yours makes their appearance soon...
~Carole

The Oneliner (Christina) said...

i do think people lie a lot, oftentimes for no reason.
however, a trick all trial attorneys know is that hesitation = lying...and i've proven that a hesitant witness is lying more times than i can count.
not that that matters in the least.
i'm sorry that you've lost your belief in other people. that sucks. i've felt that way before and its an awful way to exist. i hope you get it back soon. and i'm not lying; )

ALM said...

I don't know... I think I have to believe that people are honest more often than not. How can you deal with people otherwise? How can you deal with life?

I'm probably more than a little naive, but I do tend to take most things/people at face value & then let the chips fall where they may...

Road Blocks and Rollercoasters said...

I agree. I spend a lot of time looking for the truth and sincerity of people's words that I often miss it when they actually tell the truth. It's difficult unless you really trust someone, and sometimes that can be a difficult task in and of itself.

My Reality said...

I am always trying to find the lies even if people are telling the truth. There are very few people I trust and they have to prove their trustworthiness to me. I am a cynic, though. I wish I didn't always do this.

Furrow said...

My superlative in high school was "Most Honest." Not in the brutally honest, tell-you-like-it-is sort of way, but in the wracked-with-guilt-and-always-confessing sort of way.

Are most people dishonest? I don't know. I think many people are trying to construct a narrative that allows them to live with themselves, and often, that's not a strictly factual one. I'm guilty of that.

I'm interested to know what you do.

Monica said...

I'm likely to believe what people are saying.. it's motives I have a problem with. There is that theory that there is no such thing as a self-less act. I'm always wondering people's motives. What does that say about me? Don't answer that.

LeRoy Dissing said...

I am always in search of the truth and often it lies in front of us half there and half not. Half truths to me are worse than flat out lies cuz it is harder to ferret out the wheat from the chaff. Yet you do it because you don't want to be misled.

And often times, you have to rely on incomplete information to make a decision. After you factor everything you have, you sometimes have to just go with your gut and hope for the best. More times then not, the first impression is the right one.

Christine said...

i always want to believe that people are telling me the truth. i am naive that way.

painted maypole said...

i think you're right that people telling the truth are less solid in their story-because they have not had to imagine all the details, rather, they have to try to recall them, and that is rather more slippery.

Amelie said...

The boss can be very convincing when he wants to attract people to our work. The truth, or shall we say, reality, however, is quite different once you've joined and the first few days have passed... I've become much more sceptical. But perhaps still not enough.

thailandchani said...

Truth is one of those things that must be balanced, just like everything else.

Maybe I'm naive but I don't believe most people (with the exception of politicians and power-brokers, corporate CEOs and others of that ilk) intentionally deceive.

Most lying is really a product of avoidance.. I suspect. :)


Peace,

~Chani
http://thailandgal.blogspot.com