by Dante Zappala
I lie to my children daily. I keep the Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy myths going. I sincerely pretend to be interested when, just as I’m falling asleep, my son explains to me the entire plot of the 4th book of “Wings of Fire.” Sincerely pretending is lying. It’s nice lying, but it’s lying.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we all lie. Lie is a harsh word. It connotes a sense of hurtfulness. We generally prefer to call it something else. I remember there was much debate about using this word to characterize George Bush and Dick Cheney. Somehow, what they said to instigate the war with Iraq wasn’t a lie. It was misinformation or faulty intelligence.
But most lies are not so grand in consequence nor are they subjected to such scrutiny. They are mostly told in private and they are said with the best of intentions. At least that’s what we can tell ourselves, which is possibly just another lie.
A recent article on ESPN by Kate Fagan (formerly the Sixers beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer) profiled Madison Holleran. Madison was a promising young runner who enrolled at Penn. Just a few months into her freshman year, she killed herself. It came as a surprise to many people who knew her.
Fagan’s piece delves into the way social media entices us to curate our lives and show only the better sides of ourselves. Are these lies? Or is it that we don’t show the unflattering pieces or we hide parts of the truth simply out of discretion and better judgment?
I ran at Penn. My freshman year was miserable. I was in over my head in every respect. As a runner, I was at the back of the pack. That wasn’t the biggest problem. Going from being first in many high school races to nearly last was humbling and sometimes humiliating, but a challenge nonetheless.
More frustrating was the fact that I didn’t improve despite doubling my mileage and effort. I was constantly tired. I ended the season with tendinitis in my IT band.
Academically, I was treading water in the middle of the ocean. Central High School is a fine institution, but it did not prepare me for the rigors of the Ivy League. The kicker came when my girlfriend finally realized that I was a lunatic and broke up with me.
This was in 1994, well before a virtual social network existed. I did not have the opportunity to apply filters to my pictures on Instagram. I could not placate my pain with posts that baited likes. The people who knew me could see I was struggling. Even if I tried to lie, it was so thinly veiled that it didn’t prevent recognition and support from making its way in.
It all helped. As humans do, I adapted to the circumstances. I figured out the academics. I got over my heartbreak. And I ran times my sophomore year that I didn’t think I was capable of. Life moved and took me in wildly unexpected and different directions. Coming out of the Valley, I was truly free – free of expectations, free of having to live in a contrived image.
Lies still played a part in my life, of course. I was ambitious and insecure at the same time. I made choices that, in hindsight, were motivated by vanity and the need for approval. Lies like that are ever persistent. They are tiny but compounding, like rust.
Running should be a sanctuary for honesty. Runs tend to produce candid revelations, either to one’s self or a trusted running partner. We can reckon with the integrity of our effort. We have a clock that always tells the truth.
Of course, this can be easily perverted, like anything else that we might want to believe is sacred. A local runner, Mike Rossi, was recently exposed for most likely cheating his way into the Boston Marathon. Rosie Ruiz he is not. His lie would have remained a secret if he hadn’t publicly admonished the Abington Schools for not excusing the absences of his children during the marathon. That act provoked a backlash that led to the investigation of his running history. To me, that history clearly shows he cheated to get his Boston Qualifier.
But that’s the twist. The need to write an open rather than private letter to your kids’ principal–to land yourself on the Today Show to discuss your entitlements–is a byproduct of a dishonesty most of us practice daily. We have a shallow need for validation. The forums we have now to satisfy that desire are overwhelmingly tempting. They are so devious that they mask themselves as enemies of truth by purporting to be the conveyors of it.
The answer is probably not posting ugly pictures of ourselves. And it may not be through the constant bearing of our true souls to the world.
The answer is obscured because truth is conflicting. It can be hurtful. It can be selfish. And it can be flat out wrong.
A better approach is in practicing our ability to recognize an honest moment when it occurs. How we capture, share or interpret that moment is another beast altogether.
Runners know these moments well. They appear in pain and failure as much as they do in triumphs and breakthroughs. But these truths find us all.
In time, they corner us.