What Lies Beneath
By NANCY PATRICK
I often write about the importance of honesty and transparency. As I look through my titles for Spirit of Abilene, I see some suggest an obsession with the idea. I seem overly invested in the topic of the danger of hypocrisy to relationships.
I think this philosophy applies not only to individuals and families but also to national and international relationships. Although not an expert in the field, I have experienced so many emotional upheavals in my life that I feel I have learned some valuable lessons about this universal problem.
These pretenses begin for many in childhood and persist throughout their adult lives. They range from pretending to have a different personality from their real selves to inventing false credentials and resumes. Some people have discovered secret lives of spouses and parents after those deaths. All of us know of politicians who are completely fake in most aspects of their lives.
Because this lifestyle of pretense is so prevalent, I have difficulty understanding why so many of us feel the necessity to pretend. Many people feel inadequate or ill-favored in their families of origin. Sometimes these feelings begin as sibling rivalries; other times, parents inadvertently convey these feelings to their children.
Often these feelings commence in school when a child’s world suddenly becomes much larger and competition grows exponentially—many more people vying for few positions. This competitive atmosphere creates the need to exaggerate our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.
These exaggerations range the gamut of reasons—anything from personal jealousy to obsessive fear of failure. Many people fear the truth will make them unacceptable to others. Some of my favorite authors created characters who reveal the danger and destruction of hypocrisy.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter develops the character of Roger Chillingworth as a self-absorbed, bitter man who spends his time conniving the destruction of a man who had committed adultery with his wife. While he carries out his plan, he pretends to be a caring physician.
By the conclusion of the story, Chillingworth’s bitterness has destroyed not only his own life but also those of Reverend Dimmesdale, the adulterer, and Hester Prynne, the wife who had betrayed Chillingworth. Hawthorne as narrator writes this powerful warning as the moral of his tale: “Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait by which the worst may be inferred.”
This advice suggests that hypocrisy (pretense) eventually cracks as truth asserts itself. In reality, most of us are similar in many ways—even in our negative characteristics. We share our need for basic things like food, shelter, and clothes. In addition, we all desire love, safety, and security.
When we begin to compete with others for these things, we sometimes slip into selfish behavior that can harm others and ourselves. Ambition can overwhelm people to the point where they manipulate circumstances to their advantage and the disadvantage of others.
Shutting out those who differ from us denies their value to God. Pretending that we are one kind of person when we are actually a very different kind of person denies the personhood God has given each of us. Creating barriers that separate individuals and pit them against each other tempts people to hypocrisy.
Recognizing and acknowledging our negative characteristics causes pain. We don’t like to admit to our jealousy, greed, judgmentalism, selfish ambition, or even cruelty. Rather than looking at ourselves honestly and working on improving ourselves, we create a façade of openness, acceptance, generosity, and kindness where they may not exist.
I began many years ago to acknowledge my mistakes and ask forgiveness when I offended anyone. I certainly cannot say I have a clean slate; however, confession of two shameful things I did as a young professional reveals to the world “traits by which the worst may be inferred.”
I once said something derogatory about another person as I talked to some of my colleagues. To my surprise, the person heard about it and told my supervisor. The supervisor went to my colleagues to ask if the allegation was true, and to my shame, they lied to protect me. Also to my shame, I lied to my supervisor when he confronted me.
On another occasion, my jealousy of someone I felt was receiving preferential treatment over me led me to a vile scheme to get even. This scheme involved an anonymous letter in which I tried to manipulate circumstances to create more equitable opportunities. To this day, I can hardly believe I did such a despicably evil thing. I vowed never to do such a mean-spirited act again.
Because these incidents represent the hypocrisy I abhor, I carried shame for many years. Although I cannot right those wrongs now, I have asked for God’s forgiveness and have striven to live uprightly since.
I highly value honesty and deplore lying. Why did I lie? I was ashamed that I said what I did, I was ashamed my colleagues felt they had to lie for me, and I was ashamed of myself for lying. I have striven for truth ever since that time.
Even writing this essay breaks my heart as I acknowledge behavior that so violates my values in life. I do this to encourage others to live honestly and honorably. However, we should recognize that in our humanity, we share a propensity for failure.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing