Living a Lie

Posted by

Jeffrey Thayne

When a need presents itself, we have a choice of how to respond.

In my previous post (Resisting the Call of the Other), I presented a story told by a man named Marty. Marty was sleeping when he heard his baby cry. He had a fleeting impression that if he hurried, he could tend the baby before his wife awoke. He didn’t do it. Terry Warner describes what happened next: “Marty rationalized. He became irritated with the situation and with his wife. Childishly he tried to place blame elsewhere. In the process of betraying himself, Marty began to live a lie, the net effect of which was to excuse himself in his own mind for what was happening.”3


Terry Warner calls an act that is contrary to what we feel we should do for others self-betrayal. When we neglect, ignore, or refuse a prompting to serve another person, we inevitably resist that person’s humanity. This is because it is our sense of the other person’s humanity that calls upon us to help him or her in the first place. When we resist others in this way, we do them wrong.

Notice that Marty began to see the world in a way that justified his resistance to his wife’s needs. Of course he couldn’t do what he felt he should do—he had to get up early. Also, it was her turn. Marty thought of all sorts of reasons to excuse himself. When we resist an impression that we experience to help another person, we become self-deceived. Self-deception is “the act or practice of allowing oneself to believe that a false or unvalidated feeling, idea, or situation is true.” Marty convinced himself that his needs, hopes, and desires were more important than his wife’s, and that he was somehow more entitled at that moment than she was. He no longer saw the situation for what is really was. Warner explains, “It’s impossible to betray oneself without seeking to excuse or justify oneself. … There’s no way around this. There’s no possibility of betraying oneself without living a lie—no possibility of sinning in a straightforward, guileless, and open manner.”3

An excerpt from Leadership and Self-Deception outlines the process (with some parenthetical remarks of my own):

1. An act contrary to what I feel I should do for another is called an act of “self-betrayal.”
2. When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal.
3. When I see a self-justifying world, my view of reality becomes distorted. [I become self-deceived]
4. So—when I betray myself, I enter the box. [Or, I begin to relate with other as though they were objects, in an I-It relationship. I become resistant to their humanity, because recognizing and responding to their humanity would require me to abandon my self-betrayal.]1

Modes of Self-betrayal

Sometimes, we “carry” our boxes with us. In other words, once we begin to resist another person’s humanity, it becomes habitual. In the first post of this series, I claimed that the difference between two different ways of being is not behavioral. Any action can be done in two different ways. Marty could have gotten up to help the baby, but he could have done so while also resisting the call to help his wife. Warner explains:

One of the ways we betray ourselves is to do just what Marty was doing—to insist by our attitude and our actions that it’s all right to be doing less than our best because of how we’re being treated or what it will cost us to do better. But that’s not the only possibility. Another way Marty might have refused to yield to the promptings of his conscience is by getting up with the baby in a self-righteous spirit, saying to himself: “Here I’m the one who’s got to get up early, and I’m stuck with the night shift too.” Or: “It’s all right. I’ll do it. She hasn’t got my sense of honor and duty. It would be glorious to be married to a person sensitive to my needs and willing to do her share.”3

In other words, Marty could have already been relating with his wife in an “I-It” relationship. He could have gotten up to tend the baby so his wife could sleep, but he could have done so while still being “in the box,” while still resisting the “call of the Other.”2 In other words, it is not the action that is the criteria for being in one kind of relationship or the other; it is our responsiveness to the humanity of others. It is our way of being. In simple terms, our responsiveness will certainly influence our actions; but our actions can be done in both a resistant and responsive way.

Another example: After I hesitated to take out the trash for my roommate, I could have decided that it would be “honorable” to take out the trash despite my roommate’s laziness. I could taken out the trash and patted myself on the back for serving lazy people and being diligent in the face of opposition. In other words, I could have played the martyr’s role, done what I was prompted to do in a resistant way.


The way I have presented this, it may seem as though self-betrayal and self-deception are sequential; we betray our sense of what we do for others, and subsequently begin to construct a self-justifying view of reality to hide our sin from ourselves. This sequence is purely pedagogical, because there is no such sequence in the actual experience of self-betrayal. “The self-betrayal and the lie we live do not come in sequence,” Warner explains, “They are two sides of the same act, for as we’ve seen, the betrayal wouldn’t be possible unless it were a lie from the first moment. Blaming others and making it seem that we’re doing our best in spite of them is the way we betray ourselves. Marty failed to take care of the baby by entertaining a host of rationalizations and accusing feelings.”3

Also, self-deception isn’t just a cognitive phenomenon. It involves everything about us, including our emotions. Our entire way of being is effected. Warner continues,

It’s important to understand that emotions are always involved in the self-betrayer’s lie. It would not be the same if we merely told ourselves a lie. We would not be able to get ourselves to believe it. Consider Marty’s lie. Besides the words he said, he felt an unaccountable fatigue (which he wouldn’t have felt had he been getting up at that very same hour to go fishing), irritation at his wife for insisting they have a child at this point in his career, and perhaps even resentment toward the baby for awakening him.3

Simply put, the lie isn’t just told, it is lived. This doesn’t always mean that we believe our wrongdoing is right. We could say, “Yes, this is wrong, but I am a terrible person and I just can’t help it.” This is just as much a lie as any other form of self-deception. Self-derogatory thoughts and actions are just as much a form of self-betrayal as the same thoughts and actions towards others.


To summarize, we can’t both do wrong and see right. The moment we begin to wrong others, we also being to see the world in a way that justifies our wrongdoing. When we resist the humanity of those around us, our hearts go to war, in a metaphorical sense, with those around us. We begin to be defensive and combative at one and the same moment.

I’ll end with this final quote from Warner: “Someone who is straightforwardly doing what seems to him right will have no cause to excuse or justify himself; and someone who isn’t doing what seems to him right shows that he does have such a cause. In the words of La Rochefoucauld, ‘Hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue.'”3


1. Leadership and Self-Deception. Published by the Arbinger Institute.

2. “The Other” is a reference to Emmanual Levinas’s philosophy. Levinas’s philosophy is subtly different from Martin Buber, and it is therefore unwise to mix terminology. I will write another post later on about the differences between the two.

3. Terry Warner, “What We Are,” BYU Studies 26, no. 1, 1986.

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