Lies are terrible things. They erode personal trust. They erode social trust. They can set us up for disaster or they can impede our recovery from disaster. They harm our relationships and hurt our self-esteem.
Let’s look at the way lies will affect us going forward—by looking at the various stages where they come into play. Purposeful untruths at any of these stages set us up for lack of trust. And trust is the key element in solid personal and social relationships.
For an example of a devastating cascade of lies, I will use the example of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. Exactingly chronicled by Adam Higginbotham (Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster) and hauntingly portrayed in the HBO mini-series created by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), we can see how an ever increasing surge of lies will exact untold injury and distrust at the time of the event and for years to come.
Before the event—Years before the actual disaster, the stage was set because nuclear officials knew that the design of the reactor was unstable and a potential “time bomb.” They ignored the warning signs from past problems and forged ahead. If we are willing to ignore problems in the early stages, potential harms will only build over time.
Around the time of the event—Just before the day of the nuclear meltdown in April 1986, folks knew about an intended test of the equipment and worried about the readiness of the equipment and the team. Unwilling to be forthright can be as harmful as outright lies.
At the time of the event—When the nuclear accident occurred, all of the involved parties (engineers in the plant, public officials and upper level governmental officials) sought to downplay the event to the immediate and lasting detriment of those exposed, the nearby citizens and the millions of people exposed to the radioactive cloud. Their reassurance (their lies) of the lack of seriousness of the event and their unwillingness to take life-saving and future health-saving measures led to ongoing consequences for the decades to come. Lies are never short-lived in their effect.
After the event—The government of the Soviet Union would eventually collapse in the years after Chernobyl. One suspects that the crushing debt from having to spend billions for a “minor incident” and their lack of credibility on the international stage were significant factors. The government also chose to scapegoat a select few when in fact so many people were responsible. Finally, the public distrust that lingered eroded any trust that the citizens had for a government trying to modernize and be more open. We face the same problems now when a cascade of lies comes tumbling down on top of us.
I suspect that all of us have told lies at some point in our lives. I think the difference is in the magnitude of the lies and the willingness to correct the wrongs from lies. When we are untruthful, we can correct our errors with sincerity and humility and move forward. Trust in others totally depends on truth-telling. Without it, we cannot trust others (our mates, our family, our employers, our government, or our [fill in the blank]) to have our best interests at heart or to have the best interests of others at heart.
Lies are costly. As the opening scene from the mini-series Chernobyl notes, “What is the cost of lies? People will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then?” This is the crux of the problem. Lies have a cost because they multiply; because they tear at our moral fabric; because they can become unrecognizable. When these things occur, we lose our moral compass and can be unfaithful to ourselves, our loved ones, our fellow citizens, and others that need us. Our country and what it stands for only suffers when this happens.