Yesterday I passed a man with a cardboard sign. It read simply:
Homeless Vet. Need Help.
I noticed at the time that he looked incredibly sad. More… broken than most of the other people I’ve seen with signs. It made my heart hurt to see him.
My initial reaction was pity. And a bit of anger. Our government should take care of our veterans. The words flooded my mind with certainty fueled by passion. And I was angry. So angry, in fact, that I didn’t even notice that my initial reaction was to blame someone else for that man’s continual suffering, even as I, myself, just kept going.
I kept driving. And so did the person behind me. And the person behind him. And still the angry thought repeated: This isn’t right. The Government should take care of our veterans.
And, somewhere beneath that anger, a much much smaller voice whispered: But the government is supposed to be a representation of its people. Look at the line of cars you led that just passed that man. Maybe you’re represented accurately.
We get mad when our government lies to us, because we should be able to trust our elected officials. But the government isn’t the problem. We are. We lie to ourselves every single day. Constantly. And we’re so good at those lies that we believe them. You would think that, of all the things in the world, we’d be able to trust our own selves. But in that moment, as I drove by that man with his shame-filled, tortured face, I know that I lied to myself. And I believed me.
After the anger and blame had passed, I remember thinking I couldn’t have helped, anyway. I don’t have any cash. That was 100% accurate. I really only carry a debit card with me, so having paper money is rare. I can also believe that most of the people in the cars behind me were also without cash. That makes sense in today’s world.
But as I turned the corner, there was a fleeting thought: I could pull some money out of the ATM. This was also an accurate statement. God knows I was going to pass eight of them between here and my house. Eight! I could stop at any of them, pull out a $20, and drive around the block once. And I almost did. But then a sudden shrilling cry rose up: You don’t have enough money to just give away!!
This, my friends, was the lie. It’s one of many that we tell ourselves often, and we believe it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not rich, and chances are you aren’t, either. If you’re like me, you can’t even really call yourself “financially secure.” That thought of the ATM was drowned out by the ominous cloud of Student Loan Debt that hangs perpetually over my shoulder, screaming at me to hang on to my money with everything I have. And its cries drowned out the memory of that video game I bought last week. Or the shirt I was going to pick up tomorrow. It refused to let me consider the idea of foregoing either of those things so that a homeless veteran can buy a decent meal.
So I passed all of the ATM’s along my route and pulled up to my house that has two computers, two TV’s, two bedrooms, and enough food to keep that homeless man alive for months…and I truly believed that I was too poor to help. I was so intent on bills that were coming due and the nasty student loans and my own problems that I convinced myself of a lie. I realize now that in that moment, I was not poor as I had convinced myself. I was greedy. And that shames me.
We all lie to ourselves. Every one of us. And if you read that and immediately declared “Not Me” then I’m willing to bet that you’re so good at it now you might never be free again.
Here’s another example: I once called into work because my back hurt. I wasn’t lying– my back truly hurt. I’d woken up crying because of the pain. And I was completely sure I could not work that day.
But you know what? John Tartaglio ran a marathon without legs. If he could do that, I could have sucked it up and bagged groceries for six hours. But I didn’t. Because I’d lied to myself. And it makes me sad to think about, now. How many classes in college could I have gotten a better grade in? I know I was working every night, and sleeping in my car and stressed out, but those were all excuses. I’d convinced myself that it was okay that I’d done less than my best. That my crappy circumstances excused me from greatness.
I don’t even have to look to famous or miraculous feats to realize how petty some of my lies are. My grandfather didn’t have arms after WWII. Many people in my family suffer from depression. But my grandfather always enjoyed life and my family always finds a way to hold a job. We don’t convince ourselves that our life sucks because of things we can’t control and then just give up. Sometimes your life does suck because of things you can’t control. But if you convince yourself it can’t be at least enjoyable, you’re lying to yourself. My grandfather always said that Attitude is the Real Disability. He was a smart man.
Helen Keller got a college degree despite being both blind and deaf. How many students have dropped out of high school because they somehow convinced themselves that it was “too hard?”
I’m fat. A million other people like me are fat. And yet everyday we convince ourselves that there’s simply not enough time after work to exercise. Lies. So many convenient lies.
What would we do if we stopped lying to ourselves and spoke the truth: our shortcomings are our own fault. Our parents, society, our ancestors, that asshole that cut us off in traffic this morning… none of those things made any of our choices for us. They might have all put us in situations that were less than ideal, but WE were the ones who decided how to deal with those situations. Where we are now…how our lives are in this moment…. that’s on us. And we need to stop lying to ourselves and blaming others for it.
For every lie we tell ourselves, we need to learn to fight back with the truth. I’m the one who chose my job. My home. My life. I’m the one who’s been in control of every reaction to every situation thrown at me. That’s on me.
Everyone in the world has to play the cards they’re dealt, and, let’s be honest, it seems like most of those hands suck. But if everyone starts out with shitty hands, then why do some excel while others end up just wallowing in the misery of their original crappy luck? Don’t tell me it’s because some people are offered different opportunities or given better cards. That’s just another lie we tell ourselves to cope with our own short-comings. Because here’s the deal: How you deal with the cards in whatever deck you’re given–that’s who YOU are. And you would probably have acted the same no matter what you got. It’s still on you.
Yesterday I convinced myself I was too poor to help that man on the side of the road, despite the fact that I could have done something. That tells me that even if my bank account had a few more zeros in it– I would have still found an excuse. My brain, with all of its little “truths,” would still have told me that I needed that money for a pool or the car or the kids’ college fund. Because it lies to me. It’s not that I was poor. It’s not that I was thinking of my future or being prudent when I passed that man on the side of the road. I was being greedy. And I’d convinced myself of something else so that the real truth wouldn’t poke its ugly head.
That’s all these lies are: excuses that give us a convenient way to display our worst qualities without guilt. I don’t work out because I’m too tired after work. I’m too busy! No. That’s laziness. I haven’t called that person for years because I just haven’t had the time with work and family and bills. I’m trying to be responsible! No. That’s selfishness. I didn’t donate money to that great cause because I know I’ll need it to pay bills (though, let’s be honest, I also buy things I DON’T need sometimes). No. We’re back to greed. Do you see now how easy it is to miss things things? We’re so good at covering them up, we don’t even acknowledge them anymore.
We all have something– some convenient “truth” that makes us feel like good people despite the traits we try to hide– even from ourselves. But the only way to fix it is to be aware of it.
So stop lying to yourself. For every decision you make, truly try to understand why you made the choice you did. Acknowledge your faults. Address them. And maybe tomorrow, we’ll all be better people than we were today.