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Lessons in lying

Truth-telling in small matters helps keep us honest in bigger ones

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You don’t have to be a big-time Washington politician to play fast and loose with the truth. Basic honesty, I discovered again last week, is staggering also in the streets of our smaller cities and towns.

That lesson came in a most unpredictable context. After waging a debilitating struggle to breathe, my mother-in-law had died at the age of 91. She had participated in a morning Bible study, eaten lunch, and gone to her room in the assisted living center where she’d lived for the last year. By every account, her transition to heaven was peaceful. She was eager to see her Lord and Savior.

Things weren’t quite that tranquil in the world she left behind. No particular problems surfaced the next morning when my wife and I touched base at the funeral home to confirm details of its services. The real problem came a few days later when we received, as promised, five copies of Grandma J’s death certificate. They looked just fine, and very official with their embossed seals—as indeed they should have, since they had cost us $25 for the first copy, plus $5 for each of the other four.

Trouble was, as we read through the certificate, a handful of factual errors leaped out at us. The address of the cemetery was wrong. Several names were erroneously entered, or listed in a self-contradictory manner. Especially distressing to my wife Carol Esther was that the blank labeled “TOBACCO USE CONTRIBUTED TO DEATH” was checked with an incriminating “YES.” But everyone knew that Grandma J had, in her nine decades, never touched the stuff.

Just telling the truth, for its own sake, should matter.

No matter, we thought at first. Certainly the folks who issued this obviously legal document would want it to be right. So we listed the errors and returned it all to the sender, asking as politely as possible for a corrected version.

What we got instead seemed something like a stonewall response. Any revision of the certificate, we inferred, would be quite bothersome and somewhat costly—and it was quite clear nobody wanted to go in that direction. Better to live with a falsified document in the files than to admit that someone had made a mistake.

But, we asked ever so pragmatically, what if, when we might make a claim from a life insurance company, they note the reference to tobacco—and turn down our claim on the basis of what they see as a fraudulent statement on the policy’s application? Our question was ignored.

“Well then,” my wife countered, “what about the simple issue of truth? Isn’t it important any more that a formal document like this tell the truth?” All apart from banks and insurance companies and others who might make important decisions based on this death certificate, shouldn’t the people who sign these forms want to be known as truth-tellers?

In retrospect, maybe that’s where we should have started. Just telling the truth, for its own sake, should matter. It should certainly matter if we’ve been deliberately sloppy or careless with the truth—in which case we should stop and make things right. But it should also matter even if we have made a careless mistake in a column like this, or when filling out a form. Then we must hurry to correct such a mistake as soon as someone calls it to our attention.

That’s why WORLD has always made it a practice to devote as much space as necessary to print corrections of errors in earlier issues that come to our attention. And in that context, I rejoice to be able to tell you that not once in its 31-year history has WORLD found it necessary to withdraw or retract one of its stories or articles.

Because if we’re not careful with the truth at the most basic grassroots levels, why should we expect truth-telling to be a habit for those who inherit the highest political offices of our land? Why should we think we can trust the newscasters who report each day’s happenings on the evening news? The two, I think, are related. We’ve been protected with our big stories because we were first careful with the little stories.

And if we aren’t vigilant with basic documents like Grandma J’s death certificate, we may well find ourselves sometime soon filling out a death certificate for our whole value-free society.

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.


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