The Invisible Halo of Deception
Is it ever a good thing?
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”~ Mark Twain
Deception di-‘sep-shen?/ n 1: act or statement which misleads, hides the truth or promotes a belief, concept or idea that is not true.
Several decades ago, a former colleague approached me about a problem she was experiencing with her 10-year-old son.
She said that her son was painfully shy and didn’t feel capable or comfortable playing the sports his friends were engaged in. Instead of participating in activities like baseball and soccer, he preferred to stay in his bedroom reading and playing games.
My friend also indicated that she suspected that her son might be the victim of bullying. He was clearly not a happy boy.
I asked her how I might help the young man, knowing full well that I also failed miserably at team sports in my own youth. She told me that he was a big fan of the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, saying that his bedroom wall was plastered with posters of the film.
She then asked me if I would take him on some kind of adventure; perhaps, she suggested, a day of canoeing or hiking. I brought her concerns up to a friend of mine who was an Indiana Jones incarnate, and he came up with an excellent idea – we’ll take the lad on a real caving trip.
A week later, the three of us were on our way to Bowden Cave in Randolph County.
My friend and I had concocted a tall tale about a specially endowed quartz crystal. One that had been secreted in a cave by a Native American centuries ago. The crystal, we told the boy, had given a now extinct tribe much bravery in facing their enemies as long as the chief had it in his possession.
In our fanciful story, the jealous brother of the chief stole the crystal and hid it deep in a cave, thinking that he would be the sole possessor of its power. As a result, the tribe lost its control over its enemies. Soon after, the entirety of the tribe was decimated because of the covetous brother.
We ended our elaborate fabrication by telling the boy that if we could find the crystal, perhaps it would bring its new owner great courage, too.
We emphasized that Bowden Cave may be the cave where the crystal was hidden. But, we told him, there are many caves in West Virginia and that he should not get his hopes up too high.
Unbeknown to the lad we had entered the cave the day before. There we hid the crystal in a small room deep in the interior of the cave. A room he would explore all on his own.
Most of Bowden Cave is reasonably easy to negotiate. There are many stalactites and stalagmites, as well as a stream and many side grottos. It was a perfect location for a 10-year-old to have an adventure that he would not soon forget.
Although the kid showed some hesitancy about entering the cave, he was soon enjoying himself immensely. When we arrived at the underground stream, we slid down a smooth rock into the water and followed it some distance.
Shortly, we arrived just outside the room where the crystal had been positioned – prominently on top of a stubby stalagmite. We told the boy that he should look inside the small room by himself and tell us if there was anything worth looking at.
After several minutes of getting up his nerve, he slowly made his way into the room. From our position, we could see the beam of his headlamp shifting this way and that, then suddenly coming to a dead stop. A few moments of silence were followed by a shout that could only come from a very excited youngster.
He proudly walked out, holding the quartz crystal with both hands and a smile on his face that extended from ear to ear.
The Moral Quandary of Deception:
Afterward, I occasionally asked myself if I had done the right thing in making up a story so that a child could have an extraordinary experience. Judging from the definition I provided at the beginning of this column, I had created a belief that is not true. Clearly, I had deceived this boy.
So, where does my act of deceit fall along the spectrum of morality concerning honesty? Did I do a good thing, or could I have caused harm to that innocent, soft-spoken child? How did the cave adventure stack up against, say, cheating on one’s spouse and lying about it? Not the same, I hoped.
When I shared this story with friends, I got mixed responses. At one extreme, an older and often uncompromising friend advised “any form of deception is wrong.” Yet, one friend in the psychiatric field said quite amusingly, “Just what do you think that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are, if not a form of deception?”
I ran into my former colleague some months later and asked how her son was doing. She said with a smile that he talked about nothing but the cave adventure for weeks.
She also pointed out that the quartz crystal now occupied a prestigious location on his nightstand. He also checked out several books from the library on caves. And the term “spelunker” was now a part of his daily vocabulary.
I felt a lot better, but not as good as I felt when, years later, his mother said that she had recently visited his college freshman dorm room. There was the quartz crystal right on the bookshelf above his desk.
Of course, at some point in his adolescence, he realized that the story was made up. Yet, the experience itself and the material presence of the crystal meant something to him.
Next week, we will do a deep dive into the many aspects and moral shades of deception. For the entirety of our experience as humans, deception has played critical roles in our societal evolution.
Most of the world’s religions address the concept of deceit; the Christian Bible alone has at least six admonishments on the subject. Absolute truth is the foundation of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well. Whatever belief system you subscribe to, speaking anything but the unconditional truth is a transgression.
Deception has cost lives and saved many more; it has broken countless hearts and brought unbounded joy in the form of magic acts and performance art. We will look at deception through the lens of war and spy-craft. We will also turn our attention to the spectacular and astonishing deceptions found in the natural world.
Good, bad, or both, deception is here to stay.
All, in next week’s edition of For Your Consideration.