Jun 13 2019

Every Lie We Tell Incurs a Debt to the Truth

I watched HBO’s Chernobyl the past few nights. I finished it last night, took a deep breath, and said out loud to myself, “that was spectacular.”

One of the final quotes that stuck with me is the title of this post. The full quote is “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

Read it again. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Pause and ponder it. Think about our current world. Let the line linger a bit in your mind.

Now, watch the following ten-minute video for the comparison of Chernobyl to real historical footage. It’s incredibly powerful to watch this after you’ve watched Chernobyl, but might be even more powerful to watch it prior to watching the miniseries, which some are calling a docudrama. While some struggle with the dynamics of a docudrama and others view the techniques of Hollywood as similar to Soviet propaganda, the video below explains things well.

I was an undergraduate at MIT when Chernobyl happened. I remember reading the newspaper headlines from the Boston Globe on a daily basis (something I did most days in college at breakfast.) I didn’t have a TV and rarely went to the TV room in the basement of our fraternity to watch TV, partly because I didn’t really like TV and partly because I didn’t like the mess and smell of the TV room.

I remember being terrified almost every day as the news unfolded. The potential for nuclear war with Russia was a central theme for me growing up, especially during the Reagan years (1981 – 1989) as I went from teenager to young adult. Near the end of this period, Chernobyl was a different kind of terror – that of what was perceived by me, as an American, as a country (USSR) that had no control over planet destroying technology and was both unwilling to be clear about the reality of the situation as well as ask for help.

Today’s dead cities around Chernobyl could have been our entire planet. The map of what is known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is striking.

Map of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

While some may refer to this as a small part of our planet, it’s a dead part of our planet. Uninhabitable by humans. Sure, there may be uses for this territory, like power generating solar farms, which may serve as a backward-looking justification for how this part of our planet ends up being used. And it’s fascinatingly become a refuge for wildlife 33 years later.

While articles explain in detail Why HBO’s “Chernobyl” Gets Nuclear So Wrong, I think this line of thinking misses the idea that if a few heroic figures hadn’t made the right decisions, stayed after the problem, knowing that they were likely going to die from their own exposure to radiation, while also compelling many others to end up being exposed to extreme radiation in the crisis, containment, and cleanup effort, we might not have a planet. There’s a key moment in Chernobyl (I think in Episode 4), where it’s clear that there is now an unsolvable problem unless thousands of people are mobilized to do a set of time-sensitive and highly dangerous maneuvers to prevent a total meltdown and subsequent explosion of the other three nuclear plants in the facility. The outcome of that could have possibly been the end of our planet, civilization, and human life.

While that didn’t happen, it’s a reminder of the human ability to both create and destroy on a massive scale. It’s then presented against the backdrop of the quote: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

We live in a world of endless lies. It’s not just propaganda and misinformation designed to obfuscate and distract. It’s not just things being labels “fake news” whether they are or aren’t. It’s not just in government and politics, but in business, science, philosophy, relationships, and every other aspect of life. It’s just part of what humans do.

Everyone lies, whether it’s deliberate falsehoods, obfuscation, errors of omission, misdirection, denial, or a long list of other reasons or explanations of why people lie. The person who says, “I’ve never lied” is lying, even if they are a fair witness.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

The next time you are about to lie, or participate in a lie, consider whether you are willing to pay the debt from the lie in the future.