If we routinely ask the tough existential questions, we open up the way to a powerful authenticity before God and others.
Just one verse each day.
Somewhere in the second or third season of Seinfeld on Netflix, it hit me: In every single episode, someone lies. Oftentimes it is a small lie told to evade an awkward social encounter; sometimes it is a much bigger lie told to manipulate a romantic partner. But as a rule, self-absorption leads to deception—and disaster and absurdity follow.
George is usually the culprit. His habitual lies lead to more lies, and he spins himself more and more into the net of his own ruse until he’s trapped. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave,” Walter Scott wrote, “when first we practice to deceive.” George is a man perpetually caught in this web.
A telling example: George decides to “convert” to Latvian Orthodox because his Latvian Orthodox girlfriend’s parents won’t allow the courtship to continue. George, of course, doesn’t care one way or the other about the Orthodox faith; he just wants the girl. After he cheats on a test to get “in the club,” one of the priests remarks: “I was somewhat surprised at the results of your conversion test. I don’t recall having seen such an impressive performance. You truly must be filled with the spirit of the Lord.” George responds, “Oh, I’m full of it, Father.” George baffles his friends, devastates his parents, and converts—and then loses the girl.
Seinfeld was a mega-success in the 90s, and continues to be popular to this day. Almost half of the streaming audience wasn’t even alive when it aired. Perhaps part of its draw is that we see our ourselves in this folly of habitual lying, and laugh. (Whether we also treat lying with the moral seriousness it deserves is another question. It’s worth noting that in Dante’s Inferno, those who occupy the lowest places of hell are not guilty of sexual or even religious sins but of deceptive sins, and in the Gospel of John, Jesus himself refers to Satan as “a liar and the father of lies.”)
But there may also be a strange, subtle form of self-deception that we see mirrored back at us in Seinfeld too. In one episode, George counsels Jerry: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” In another, he goes even further: “My whole life is a lie!” George is not only a man who habitually lies to others without compunction; he is a man who tells lies to himself so often he starts to believe them—even to become them.
Roles to play
One of the great themes of the existentialists—authenticity—dealt with precisely this problem. In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre famously describes a waiter who is “play acting” at being a waiter: he dresses, speaks, and acts like a waiter. But it is all inauthentic, a façade; he is only trying to fulfill a “role” and convince others that he belongs in it.
In the film I Heart Huckabees, “existential detectives” diagnose a charming, storytelling (and story-repeating) Jude Law with a similar malady: his whole public personality is theater. If he didn’t tell charming stories, would he be himself? “How am I not myself?” the bemused man responds. The detectives look at each other and repeat the question, which then echoes in the man’s mind as he walks into the office again, slipping on his charming identity like a cloak: How am I not myself? How am I not myself?
But this temptation toward play acting has been ramped up by the twin rise in digital media and identity politics. So much of life unfolds now in the virtual world, where utterly malleable, transitory, and superficial expressions of “who we are” can be controlled with a flick of the finger. And “who we are” is increasingly bound up with certain outward characteristics or behaviors rather than any deep, interior, eternal wellspring. What results is a world where identity feels more and more like something manipulable and external—and therefore manufacturable.
We see this in the rise of “LARP” talk. The acronym refers to live-action role-playing, a gaming scenario in which a group dresses up as certain fictional or historical characters and acts out scenes in real life. But the term has been repurposed as a kind of psychopathological diagnosis: someone identifying with a certain group is merely “play acting.” Their “thing” is a kind of false identity, a gaming “skin” but in the real world. They are, in short, living a lie.
“LARPing” tends to be something we think of other people doing—as ever, we see the splinter in our neighbor’s eye, not the beam in our own. But isn’t this a temptation, to some degree or other, for all of us? It has never been easier to throw ourselves full tilt into social progressivism, religious traditionalism, or any other ism, championing its aesthetic and lexicon as our own, no matter how external to our authentic self it remains.
We must ask ourselves: Are we using it to gratify some need, or to play a social role like Sartre’s waiter? Do we truly embrace it, and embrace it for what it is? Do we really inhabit it and live in it, including when no one is watching? Are we dwelling as strangers in someone else’s story? How do we live more fully in the truth of who we are? And who are we, anyway?
If we routinely ask these tough existential questions, we open up the way to a powerful authenticity before God and man, even in the age of LARPing. But if, like George, we lie to live—or even live a lie—the joke, sadly, is on us.