Is it ever okay to lie?
Is it ever okay to lie? Our numerous and nuanced responses to this question could fill a library. None of them, however, should mask the fact that we all lie. Most of us are quite adept at it. We may lie to promote ourselves or protect ourselves or influence others. Sometimes we’re not sure why we lie. Strangely enough, lying is a deeply ingrained human trait, much like its counterpart – the need to trust other human beings. Children begin lying as early as age two, often to test their independence.
If you doubt your capacity to lie, or “bend the truth,” just think of a time when someone asked you how you were feeling, and you responded with words that weren’t entirely true. Or recall a time when a friend asked you what you thought of her new hair cut, or glasses, or difficult (to you at least) boyfriend, and you couldn’t bear to tell the truth of what was on your mind.
Consistently lying about objective truth isn’t a good way to become a whole person. To be “true to our word” suggests that integrity, reliability, and fidelity – virtuous qualities, to be sure – are important to us. This is good.
There is one setting, however, that is causing me to broaden my interpretive horizons about lying. I have in mind a memory care unit where some of our church members have spent their final seasons. On a recent visit, I struck up a conversation with one of the staff. We got to talking about the nature of dementia and what it takes to provide quality care for residents in advanced stages. The more she shared, the more I came to realize that some lying is not only unavoidable for those who work in these settings every day; lying can also serve as a protective measure for residents who have no power to alter cruel truths about their circumstances.
It’s not at all uncommon to hear residents in a memory care unit pleading to go home. Some facilities create vintage landscapes and artificial settings, including even fake bus stops. A resident who insists on going home may sit at the bus stop for a while until he forgets why he’s there, at which point he returns contentedly to his room to continue on with life.
The more I visit people in memory care, the more admiration I have for the most selfless caregivers. Do they tell every patient or resident the truth all the time? No, they certainly don’t. But their lying may be an ethical way of being present to individuals whose confused minds want nothing more than basic security and moment-to-moment peace. “Compassionate deception” is what some health professionals call this activity. If thoughtfully administered, it strikes me as congruent with faithful living.