"I can't stand Marguerite; she's such a phony!" Erica's dark eyes flashed, and I thought for a moment that she might pound my kitchen table. Erica is a way-way-back friend of mine--I first met her when she was seven, and she's starting to push 30. She's in Toronto now, sharing a townhouse with far too many other young women her age. The latest roommate, Marguerite, is driving Erica nuts. Marguerite promises so much, and she delivers so little--or the opposite of what she promises. She comes on as all warm and caring, Erica tells me, but her smile doesn't quite reach her eyes. She's excessively sweet, but she has a nasty side. She's Jekyll and Hyde, half warm touchy-feely, half passive aggression. All in all, Marguerite's walk and her talk have very little to do with each other. And this drives Erica a little nuts, because this, to Erica, represents the Big Lie.

The Big Lie is claiming to be something you aren't--or, more likely and more dangerously, claiming to be someone you aren't. It's pushing your own lovability at the cost of deceiving the people you're dealing with. It's promising more love than you can deliver. It's gaining others' trust and then letting them down. It's presenting a persona instead of a self. And it is as common as dirt.

Erica's buttons are more than a little pushable on the subject of the Big Lie. She grew up suffering much from it. During her adolescence, her mother crossed some sort of psychological boundary and began to hand Erica a crazy-making mixture of charming warm-fuzzies and constant low-grade criticism: "I love you, no matter how unpopular you are with other people", "I love you no matter how screwed up you are." That sort of thing. Erica's reaction (I am very glad to say) has been healthily rebellious: she has developed an almost ferocious sense of integrity. Having grown up with trust-busting, she works at being trustworthy. Having grown up with manipulation, she is absolutely honest. Without being in the least obsessive about it (and allowing herself some grrrrl faults!) she checks her walk against her talk and makes sure that they're lined up. As a result, she is a perfectly splendid person.

But she doesn't suffer fools gladly, and most especially she does not suffer phoniness at all. Having chosen the path of integrity and paid some pretty hefty tolls on that road, Erica won't give the time of day to someone who smacks of insincerity. She understands the need for tact and can, in fact, handle truth-telling with appropriate gentleness. But God help anyone who shows any hypocrisy in Erica's presence, because up with that she will not put.

I am a tad less passionately reactive to phoniness than Erica is--perhaps because I'm older and significantly more tired. But I agree with her fundamentally. The Big Lie (insincerity, fraudulence, hypocrisy) may not be on the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but I think it would be a useful addition, along with Fear. The Big Lie does, after all, far more harm than mere Gluttony.

I thought about it, and then I realized that it might be on the list after all. The Big Lie, it occurs to me, is a manifestation of that granddaddy of the Seven, Pride. From what I know of Erica's mother (quite a lot), the appearance of being a good and loving mother mattered immensely to her. In fact, it mattered so much that it quite outstripped the substance of being a good and loving mother. It's as though Erica's mother split mothering into two entities: Saint and Sinner: the warm-fuzzy fun part and the painful, self-doubtful, sometimes critical, necessarily difficult stuff. Erica's mother would only allow herself to act the warm-fuzzy part. She had to be 100% Saint, for her own self-esteem. The rest, she put over to one side, out of her own sight, where it got up to all sorts of covert nastiness. That let Erica's mother feel really good about herself as a mother. The problem is, it made her a lousy mother.

I've seen this split happen elsewhere: Persona over here, Self over there; Persona getting bigger and flashier and more impressive, while Self dwindles away. And those who needed and deserved love from Self go hungry, because while Persona may look terrifically loving, the love's as false and insubstantial as Persona itself.

This is perhaps the most powerful reason for accepting that we all are really truly SINNERS: not so that we can feel miserable about ourselves, but to keep ourselves honest, to keep Persona severely pruned back so that true Self can grow and become all that God intended Self to be. Erica's integrity is the most splendid sort of Selfness; she has no use for Persona at all, because she's seen through her mother what Persona is really like. No: put it a little different. She's seen through her mother. And her mother's "love" will never, for Erica, ring really true again --not until and unless her mother can put Persona down and become her Self again.

I've seen the Big Lie myself, not once but time and time again. It's so sad, because those who put the most into Persona are those whose Self-part feels so unlovable that it needs to hide. Show me the Big Lie and I'll show you a person with virtually no real self-confidence or sense of God's sweet love--someone who's lost and terribly small and vulnerable, a wizened child who's failed to grow. But it's funny, how often a small and vulnerable Self turns away from Love and runs to hide again behind Persona.... If there is the Sin of Pride (puffing ourselves up), there's also the inverse form: having no real self-love at all, and hiding from Love because we feel so unlovable.

Erica and Marguerite did manage to get things straightened out, thank God. Erica, in her straightforward way, explained what her problem was with Marguerite, and Marguerite has figured out that it really is okay to be her Self around Erica, as long as she doesn't try to people-please Erica at the expense of actually doing what she promises. It'll work out, Erica says.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 17 Mar 2001
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