When I wrote the post Every Lie We Tell Incurs a Debt to the Truth I expected to get some feedback. I got more than I usually do (mostly by email vs. blog comments) and much of it was thoughtful.
One person pointed to the video I embedded, which I thought was great. It’s an extensive explanation of things in HBO’s Chernobyl that were either simply wrong or exaggerated. The video is entertaining as well as substantive, so it’s a good addition to the content from the show.
Separately, I listened to The Chernobyl Podcast on my drive up to Aspen about two weeks ago. If you watched the HBO Chernobyl docudrama, the accompanying podcast is a must listen. Peter Sagal (host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!) interviews Craig Mazin (Chernobyl Series Creator and Executive Producer.) Peter is an awesome host and he pulls out a ton of interesting, useful, and curious information from Craig.
Next up for me is reading Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster which is near the top of my pile of infinite books to read (right after I finish Black Crouch’s Recursion.)
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.
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.
“Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you were destined to be.” – Dr. George Sheehan
When I heard that presidential VP candidate Paul Ryan said something like he had run a “2-hour-and-50-something” marathon, I knew immediately he was lying. I don’t know a single person who has ever run a marathon who doesn’t know the exact time it took him or her to do it. The 2-hour-and-50-something language didn’t ring true to me and I smiled when I read Andy Burfoot and George Hirsch’s essay in the NY Times titled The Honorable Clan of the Long-Distance Runner.
This isn’t a political post but my disclaimer is that I have no time or energy for Paul Ryan so my bias is out of the way. But I simply hate when people lie. As a kid, my parents made it painfully clear to me that lying isn’t acceptable. I remember being punished a few times before the age of 10 – once was for stealing baseball/football cards (my cousin Kenny’s OJ Simpson card and another friend’s cards – a bunch of them) and once for lying about where I had been. In each case, I was grounded, but also had to admit I had lied and then tell the truth to the person I had deceived, which was even more painful than being grounded.
Those are the two lies I remember. I’m sure there have been other white lies or lies of omission since then, but I feel confident from about age 10 forward I turned off the “it’s ok to lie” switch in my brain. It’s part of my approach to life – I am honest and direct, even if the information is painful to hear or to say. I try to say it in a soft way when it is painful, but I don’t dodge it.
If I make a mistake, which I do often, I own it and correct it. I view making a mistake as very different than lying. I used to exaggerate more and my first business partner Dave Jilk would often call me on exaggerating and we’d have long conversations about the difference between exaggerating and lying. I ultimately agreed with Dave and now I try not to exaggerate – I’ll be optimistic in the face of an uncertain outcome, but I try never to exaggerate about historical or factual data, and when I do I correct myself publicly.
I hate lying. It’s a non-starter for me. I have passed on investing in companies that I wanted to invest in because I thought the entrepreneurs had lied to me about something in the deal process. I’ve disengaged from companies I’ve been involved in because I’ve been lied to, even ones that were doing well. I’ve stopped interacting with people who I had developed a relationship with because they lied to me. I’ve ended friendships, including long ones, over deceit. The stimulus for my first divorce was a lie from my ex-wife (an affair that she had.) And I simply have no time to develop a relationship with someone who I think lies.
Marathon running is the ultimate example of this. You can’t lie about running a marathon; you will eventually get caught if you do. Every marathon I’ve been involved in (now 22 of them), including several with under 250 people in them, has a tight set of rules around finishing that are easy to understand and are recorded diligently. I think I can, without looking, tell you the time of all 22 marathons I’ve run. I can’t get it to the second, but I learned after my first marathon when I was a teenager that you get to drop the seconds – a 5:07:40 marathon (my Boston time) is 5:07; a 4:05:27 (my Chicago time) is a 4:05. But there is no such thing as a 2-hour-and-50-something marathon (which turned out to be a 4:01, which is still super impressive in my book.)
Just finishing a marathon is a huge achievement in itself. Paul Ryan’s 4:01 is faster than my PR over 22 marathons (4:05) – it’s beyond me why he would feel compelled to lie about this. He should be proud of his 4:01!
Don’t lie. It’s simply not worth it. And if you are going to lie, don’t bother wasting your time with me.