Phil Gulley: Truth or Dare

The secret to happiness lies in dishonesty.

When I was little, my parents told me never to lie. It was lousy advice, which I promptly ignored by promising them I would always tell the truth. As a reward, they took me to the Dairy Queen for ice cream, which in my mind confirmed the value of dishonesty. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed all lying was bad. Spoken like a man who never married. Because let me tell you, anyone who has ever been married knows the secret to marital bliss is lying.

People should always be able to trust their spouse not to tell big lies, such as failing to inform your wife in Indiana that you have another wife in Illinois. That’s a big lie. Or not mentioning that you’re wanted for bank robbery in California. Or murdered someone in Kansas. Those lies are called whoppers and should be avoided, even though the last one is understandable. If I had to live in Kansas, I would murder people right and left.

But small lies are a different matter and should be sprinkled generously and thoughtfully throughout a marriage. When we were first married, my wife asked me if she looked nice in a dress she had purchased for a wedding. Being stupid, I told her I didn’t care very much for the dress. She went ahead and wore it, but she felt self-conscious the whole evening. I had hoped attending a wedding with my wife might incline her mind toward romance. Instead, she wanted to beat me dead with a shovel, burn me to ashes, and toss my remains in a river.

You want to know how I know that? Because I asked her if she was mad at me, and she said, “I want to beat you dead with a shovel, burn you to ashes, and toss your remains in a river.” That was another marital instance that could have been helped by lying.

If your spouse ever asks if you’re mad at him or her, do not say “yes.” Don’t believe that psychobabble about the importance of open and honest communication in a marriage. Everyone who says that is divorced. Open and honest communication didn’t work for them, and now they want you to be as miserable as they are.

As a pastor, I do a fair amount of marriage counseling. Almost every marital conflict can be traced back to truthfulness. Not long ago, a couple came to me complaining that they always fought. I asked them to describe a typical day. They worked, came home, and then the husband sat down to watch TV while the wife cooked supper and helped the kids with their homework. Now, here’s when things went south. One evening, the wife asked her husband if he would be willing to help, and he said “no.” He was telling the truth. Dumb, dumb, dumb. He should have said, “I would love to help you, honey. Let me cook supper.” Then he should have burned it beyond recognition, causing her to never want him in the kitchen again. But no, he had to be an idiot and tell the truth, and now their marriage is doomed.

If anyone ever tells you they want your honest opinion about something, what they really want is for you to lie and make them feel good.

Every Sunday, when we’re driving home from our Quaker meetinghouse, I ask my wife if my sermon was good, and she always says it was. I’ve given approximately 1,400 sermons over the past 30 years. It seems likely that more than a few of them sucked. But to hear my wife tell it, they’ve all been excellent. I know she’s lying, but I prefer dishonest flattery over candid feedback. If anyone ever tells you they want your honest opinion about something, what they really want is for you to lie and make them feel good.

Example: A boss approaches two of his employees and the following exchange takes place.

Boss: “I’m going to ask you something, and I need you to tell me the truth. Am I a good boss?”

Dumb Worker: “Well, since you asked, I’ll be honest. You’re hard to please, you’re not very smart, and the people you think are good workers are really just sucking up to you.”

Smart Worker: “I continue to be amazed by your insight, wisdom, and inspirational leadership.”

The next week, the boss is told he must lay off a worker. Which one do you think will get the ax? Exactly.

My older son is getting married this month. The other evening, I overheard his fiancee say, “Honey, I’d like to dance at our reception. Do you like to dance?” He said he would love to. I know for a fact he hates to dance, so you can imagine how proud I was to hear him lie to his wife-to-be. I predict a long and happy marriage, built on a sturdy foundation of untruth and deception.

About the only people who shouldn’t lie are doctors. I was waiting for a table at a restaurant recently when a family sat beside me. The mother was holding a baby, and she asked, “Isn’t he beautiful?” His face was pruny, his nose disturbingly large, and his eyes bulged out. “What a handsome little guy,” I answered. If I were a doctor, I would have had to suggest checking the kid’s thyroid. For that reason alone, I would make a lousy physician. Can you imagine having to be honest with someone about their health?

Another example: A 350-pound person says that his knees hurt.

Me: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Perhaps you injured them as a child.”

Doctor: “Of course they hurt—you’re morbidly obese. You need to lose some weight.”

It’s no wonder doctors make so much money. They have to spend all day telling people the truth. It’s an impossible job.

We say we want honest politicians, but we keep electing liars—candidates who tell us that they can balance the budget without raising taxes. They know if they told us the truth (that we’re broke because we want too much from our government but aren’t willing to pay for it), they’d never get elected. So they lie, and we elect them because we don’t want to face the facts. If we had wanted politicians who told the truth, Ron Paul would be our president, which would have worried me to no end. After all, anyone who always tells the truth has to be crazy.


Illustration by Ryan Snook

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue.