Thursday, May 30, 2019

Alternatives to Pretending


A met an old pal of mine just the other day. He was looking down, which was a surprise. When I knew him well and we were both in our '20s, he was one of the most irrepressible optimists I've ever met. He was always laughing and joking, always cheerful, no matter what the problem. Right now he looked as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. I asked him what was getting to him and he said he was in the middle of a messy divorce. Without thinking, I blurted out that it must be a problem caused by his 'wandering eye'.

He was always a bit of a devil with the ladies, very popular with the opposite sex. In fact, the reason I knew him fairly well in those days is that we used to meet up every Sunday lunchtime in the pub. There, listening to jazz and supping a pint or two of beer, we would swap stories of our recent bachelor exploits. What I remember is that he always had more to report than I did. I led a fairly conventional life then, which meant that even though I could be found in pubs and bars, clubs and discos, I was usually the guy who was walking home early in the evening, alone. Oh, I had my fair share of girlfriends, relationships and affairs, and, in fact, didn't meet the person I settled down with until I was past the magic age of 30. Still, my 'adventures' were as nothing compared to my pal's, who was likely to regale us with every fine detail, each and every Sunday lunch. So, I was thinking, surely that was the issue. He couldn't resist a bit of temptation, yes? What was it, an office romance, a flirtatious affair with a neighbour? My old friend looked at me sadly. You got me wrong, he said. I made all that stuff up.

It was a revelation. I knew that when people like us got together in those far off days, the combination of alcohol and encouragement from peers, meant that one was tempted to exaggerate. I knew that, and I wasn't very good at it, with the result that I was always left behind, struggling to keep up. My 'stories' were always far less graphic, less intriguing, less entertaining than my friend's, mostly, because what I said was true. I was therefore staggered, appalled, when my old friend not only said, 'I made it up', but added, as if it was an obvious afterthought, 'Didn't you?' No, I didn't. Sorry. I didn't realise I had to.

Reading a recent book by psychiatrist Oliver James I realise that I'm a bit old-fashioned. You see, I should have made it up. That's the modern way. In a world that is less concerned with sexual conquests and more interested in material success, the conversation tends to focus on what job you have; what you're paid; where you live; where you go on holidays; and what car you drive. The temptation therefore, naturally, is for people to exaggerate and when they can't get away with that, tell a downright lie. The more sophisticated alternative, in these days of modern credit, is to 'lie' with a reality that you can't really afford. Thus, drive a car that is way too expensive for you, and struggle to pay for it with a car loan that is too much for you. Or holiday in exotic foreign parts and slap the payments on a credit card which you can hardly afford to settle. That's as much a 'lie' as saying you've been there when you haven’t, but it's more undercover and you're less likely to get caught.

Because, in the end, that really is the point. You will get caught out, everybody does. Like my friend from years ago. He was married for many years and now he's divorced. It's taken that long a time for me to find out he was a young and reckless fibber, but I did find out, and yes, I do think less of him, now that I know. Pretending is such a short term solution. It may work, today, or in the moment, but it won't hold up for ever, no matter how much you try and prop it up. Eventually it will crumble to the ground. The point, according to our helpful psychiatrist, is that you have to expend energy to maintain a lie, energy that you take from some other part of your life. Eventually you find yourself putting all your effort into telling people what an interesting and challenging job you have, rather than looking for a better one. Or you spend your precious energy trying to keep up the pretence of having lots of money, and end up in debt. It can't be supported. Far better, says our advisor, to put your efforts into being real and, if you aren't happy with where you are and what you're doing, put all that physical and psychic power into improving your circumstances. If you make the mistake of putting time and effort into making excuses, then that's all you'll have. Instead, put the effort into changing, but own up if things are bad. What do you get? A better life, less tension, stress and painful dichotomy between what you are and what you pretend you are. For me, all it means is that I was being honest about not being seen as much of a Romeo in my '20s. That's hardly a high price to pay for peace of mind.

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