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Learning to Lie: An Unexpectedly Useful Life Skill

July 14, 2012

I lie for a living.  Ok, that’s not exactly right.  I manipulate people and situations and facilitate the manipulation of people and situations by others in service of a greater good, and I get paid for it.  Sometimes I question, albeit at a very shallow level, why I feel comfortable doing what I do.  Usually, I either just stop thinking about it or I vaguely decide that the greater good makes it all ok.  Other times, I wonder how, when, and why I developed the skills that have made me successful at my job.  I have no answers but I do have some thoughts that I will share following this message from Henry Rollins:

Pinewood Derby:    Next-door neighbors Dorothy and Harry were my pack leaders, guides, and mentors throughout my Cub Scout and Webelos career.  I have great memories of pack meetings (with hot chocolate!), service projects (field clean-ups), talent shows (one five-note song on guitar), and cherry-picking outings.  Harry especially worked hard to ensure we all had a positive, fun, and self-esteem-building experience in scouting.

As I look back, I realize that, for Harry, helping us develop self-confidence also meant protecting us (and possibly himself) from the pain of a poor showing.  For example, I remember working hard on my first Pinewood Derby car.  I carved a dragster-looking vehicle with a thin, long nose and a rounded rear end.  I was especially proud of the metallic purple paint job and the little notched wind screen I formed right in front of where a driver would sit.  In streamlining my car however, I had inadvertently whittled away much of the weight that would be needed to pull my racer down the Derby track at a respectable speed.

It turned out that many of my pack-mates had done the same thing, sacrificing well-distributed volume for increased cool.  All was good though as Harry worked at some kind of machine or fabrication shop.  He gathered up our cars and took them to work where he hollowed out carefully-selected holes that he then filled with lead and capped off with indiscernible wood plugs.  Our cars came back appearing exactly the same, but with the added heft from the invisible modifications Harry suggested we not mention to our competitors from other Scout packs.  Needless to say, our pack did exceptionally well in the district-wide competition.  If I recall correctly, I think my purple dragster even won a couple of heats outright.

First Deer:  I grew up hunting and fishing with my extended family and absolutely loved the annual late fall family trek to Ashley National Forest in northeastern Utah with uncles, aunts, and grandparents for the deer hunt.  I spent many great times sitting on frosty cold ridges up above Sheep Creek at dawn with my mom, dad, step-dad, or grandpa waiting for mule deer to casually meander along or be pushed past us by other hunters making their way through the valley below.  Later after the sun would rise a bit higher, we’d separate into our trucks and slowly ride along scrubby dirt roads looking for our prey.

Upon turning 16 and getting my own license, I was as excited as could be for my first trip to June’s Rock and vicinity as a full-fledged hunter.  That was a sparse year for lawful bucks however, so our party was still skunked well into the first long weekend of the hunt.  I felt pressure to at least get some shots off, having heard the story of my mom taking her first deer at age 14 and having witnessed and celebrated many successful hunts over the course of my childhood, so I was thrilled when Grandpa suggested he and I head out together one afternoon.

As we drove the rutted roads of what our family called the Death Valley area, Grandpa delighted me with endless stories of successful hunts from the preceding 50 years while we each scanned the trees on our side of the truck.  I carried a .30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle that I imagined to be exactly the same as the one John Wayne shot heroically from horseback in the movie The Cowboys, while Grandpa cradled his bigger .30-06 bolt-action in his lap as he steered the pick-up around rocks and through ravines.

Maybe a half hour before sundown, we finally spotted a small two-point buck along the tree line on Grandpa’s side of the road.  We jumped out of the vehicle and Grandpa impatiently urged (read: yelled at) me to shoot before the deer took off.  I squeezed off two wild rounds that only served to spook the animal before Grandpa dropped it with one shot just as it was disappearing into the thick trees.  We made quick work of bleeding and gutting the buck, with Grandpa dotingly guiding me as I undertook the bulk of the task.

As we dragged the carcass back to the pick-up, Grandpa matter-of-factly stated that I should take credit for the kill and before I knew it he was on the CB radio announcing that I had bagged my first deer and calling for our party to gather to head in for the evening.  And just like that it was done.  I was an accomplished hunter.  A few weeks later, Mom presented me with the mounted antlers of “My First Deer” along with a plaque commemorating the milestone.  To this day – or at least until this is read – family lore has me shooting that deer in 1980.

Missionary Work:  My 18-month service as a Mormon missionary in Peru from 1983-1985 was easily the single most significant experience of my life in terms of influencing the course of what came after.  It bequeathed me a foreign language, gave me a deep appreciation for and curiosity about other cultures and customs, taught me independence, and tweaked my interest in international politics to the point that it became first my course of study and later my career.  The missionary experience showed me that I could sincerely care about and love other people, even strangers, in a profound and selfless way that I wouldn’t have imagined beforehand.  Furthermore, my mission directly influenced who I would marry and explains why my children are wonderfully bilingual.

Above said, it bears remembering that I was only 19-20 years old at the time.  I honestly believed (and still do) that I had an important message to share that could bring real happiness and comfort to many who chose to listen.  But, how does an inexperienced teenage punk convince more worldly and entangled adults that they should consider upending their lives to do what he suggests?

The answer was surprising simple.  First, the punk stops thinking about the difficulty of the task and just goes for it, walling off personal doubts and insecurities and opening himself to a purely emotional approach.  “I can’t fully explain in rational terms why you should do this, I simply know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you should and that it will be a good thing for you.”  As time goes on and the emotional approach becomes more “habitual,” the punk starts to notice that certain means of expressing words and feelings seem to touch the recipients more intensely, and therefore the punk actively tends toward greater use of those means.

Eventually, greater and greater experience leads to the employment of a kind of exquisitely-honed, albeit significantly more rote, oratory; the punk steps aside and the skilled missionary takes his place.  Cynical and manipulative, you say?  Not necessarily.  As long as the missionary still believes sincerely and deeply that he is truly offering manna from heaven, then he is simply applying learned skills to more effectively achieve wonderful and blessed results.  The greater good is served.  Of course, there can be little doubt that such talents developed in pursuit of God’s glory can prove quite handy when applied toward less celestial goals later in life.

Conclusion:   In the end, it is likely best to not spend too much time in further contemplation and instead just keep on producing positive results, allowing myself pride in my accomplishments, and banking them paychecks.  Being expected to exercise strong and unfaltering personal integrity in leveraging manipulative skills and lies in service of the clear-cut greater good, where’s the problem?  My personal favorite “alternative country” artist, Robbie Fulks, certainly gets it …

From → Beasts, Church, Ideas

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