“Hello, this is Mrs. Wagner.” I said in my most convincing forty-three year-old maternal voice. At fourteen years of age, I noticed that my mother and I possessed roughly the same quantity of underarm hair: nada. This fact, taken together with one or two other pieces of evidence, led me to the conclusion that I could leverage my usually embarrassing lack of puberty to a momentary advantage.
I confidently informed the Dean of Discipline, Mr. Belz, that my Freshman son, Tom Wagner, would not be attending school that day due to an unfortunate illness. “Yes. I think it’s the flu…stomach flu. Oh yes…a temperature. …one hundred and…three. …probably take him to the doctor later. Yes. Thank you for your concern.”
After a day of wandering around seeking the clandestine entertainments of a truant outlaw, and more or less being bored out of my mind, I rendezvoused, books in hand, at the usual bus stop for a ride home. I could tell that my eggs were cooked from the minute I stepped into the car. “How was school?” My mom queried with the voice of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady.” “Oh, okay.” I answered in an impossibly nonchalant tone. “How were your classes?” The squirmy questions continued flowing.
I knew that mom knew. And mom knew that I knew that she knew. But in moments like these, it is the cat’s prerogative to play with the mouse until she is good and ready to pounce. And pounce she did. The very next day I was to learn that as soon as Mr. Belz said good bye to the pretend Mrs. Wagner, he immediately called the real Mrs. Wagner. Together they collaborated and constructed a truly artistic consequence.
Mr. Belz accompanied me to my first several classes. There he graciously, and ceremoniously introduced my teachers and classmates to a familiar looking, but nonetheless, brand-spanking-new transfer student. “Good morning class, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Mrs. Wagner, a new student here. Be sure to show her around and make her comfortable in her new school.” My class was able to make good on exactly half of what Mr. Belz asked them to do. They showed me around all right (as in, “Hey, did you know this is really Mrs. Wagner?”), but somehow forgot all about the, “making me feel comfortable,” part of the directive.
I would like to say that my “Mrs. Wagner-punishment” was so effective, that this episode was my one and only brush with playing fast and loose with the truth. It wasn’t. Like a furrow made ever-deeper by the repeated strokes of a garden hoe, it took an accumulation of negative consequences to eventually make a permanent impression upon me. I eventually learned that there is no such thing as a successful lie. The moment a lie exits out of the front door, its consequences come knocking immediately at the backdoor.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6). If Jesus is the “truth,” then whenever someone is doing his or her best to live in truth, with real integrity, he or she is acknowledging Jesus. Even when a person does not consciously know Christ, they are assenting to him in an anonymous way to the extent that they are living in truth and integrity.
Our souls were handmade by God. They were built with an inborn attraction and hunger for what is true. At the same time, each one of us, at one time or another, to some extent or another, fails to live in complete integrity. When we fail to acknowledge the truth to ourselves or others, we fail to acknowledge Jesus, since “Truth” is a synonym for “Christ.”
What is the current state of your integrity? Living in truth and integrity involves so much more than the avoidance of a lie. Each maneuver that we perform to preserve another person’s fragile ego, or to avoid an uncomfortable moment, places a certain amount of distance in a marriage or close friendship. Each time that we fail to give honest feedback to a friend, we place an arm’s length between ourselves and them. When we pretend that something that is troubling is okay with us, we limit the transformative power of that relationship. When we consciously or unconsciously sell a false image of ourselves to others, we undermine our own heart’s desire to be accepted and loved for who we are. We short-circuit our capacity to get our deepest needs met.
I have enclosed a brief list of common ways that people (including me) wiggle out of the truth. A list like this is not meant to act as a stick used for self-flagellation. Besides Mary and Jesus, every person who has walked the face of the Earth fudged on the truth in large or small ways. At times they weren’t conscious they were doing it. At other times they were conscious, but made a bargain with themselves to avoid paying attention. Can you find your preferred way(s) of fudging on the Truth here?
- For fear of offending someone, or hurting their feelings, we do not give them honest feedback, or call them to accountability.
- Rather than giving honest feedback to someone, we talk about them behind their back (with a soothing tone of concern of course).
- Out of fear of having someone exit a relationship, we pretend that something that is bothering us is okay with us.
- We pretend not to notice that one of our children is being torn down by another family member, because acknowledging this threatens to tear the family apart.
- Aided with superficial, false psychological theories, we pretend that we are incapable of purposely hurting someone.
- Rather than utilizing the Sacrament of Confession to honestly claim our shadowy sides, to repent, and to change, we utilize it to pretend that an unwanted part of the self has disappeared after we confessed the sin. This leads to the same old behaviors showing up over and over again.
- We pretend that we are too fragile to hear difficult feedback from someone.
- Our spouse or community member has asked for something. Rather than trying to meet their needs with self-donating love, we ignore them.
- Using our religious tradition to insulate ourselves from uncomfortable encounters with people who are different than us is a failure to acknowledge Jesus.
- We pretend not to notice injustice when we are the beneficiaries of that injustice (e.g. A common example is purchasing inexpensive items from companies that make use of child-slaves in other countries).
Whenever we acknowledge the worst in us, we are standing for the best in us. Whenever we acknowledge the shadow in us, we are that much more capable of not acting out of that place. The ways to wiggle out of integrity are many. Whenever you notice that you’ve gotten a little slippery when it comes to your integrity, the first step is to allow yourself to humbly feel the embracing love of God for whom every hair on your head is precious (Mt 10: 30). The pathway back to your integrity is very near to you. It is knit into the fiber of your being