-You would be proud of him for his comittment, even if it disgusted you that his comittment was only to himself.
-You would tell him, “When I said you should tell the truth, I didn’t mean only when it’s convenient.”
-When he insisted he had brushed his teeth, even though you doubted it, you would tell him to open his mouth so you could smell his breath.
-You bend forward to bring your nose to his open mouth and feel a bit guilty for doubting the little guy, standing in his pajamas. Then you would smell minty breath. Indisputable evidence that he had, in fact, brushed his teeth. Though it’s possible he just sucked on the toothpaste tube for a moment, it would be hard to know the difference. You would feel bad for doubting him, but not nearly so bad as when, after you acknowledged this, he called you terrible names.
“Don’t use such terrible language, Lance!” you would say. “You should never say such terrible things to anyone.”
Years later, when he’s an adult, you might castigate him for calling you a “fat crazy bitch.” And he might say, “I never called you fat.”
If Lance Armstrong were your kid:
-You would be in the midst of a very difficult pivot right now. Because in trying to communicate the importance of telling the truth, part of what we impart is the shame of lying. I am very aware of this these days as my daughter is just now starting her second semester of Kindergarten, and the whole drama of school, real school, is still very new. The dynamic does not get expressed in terms of lying. Or cheating. But it does involve behavior. And the integrity and self-respect.
And when we saw on the report card, which to date has been nothing but an occasion of joy and pride, one little blot having to do with listening, there was much stentorian talk from the wife and I about, in so many words, not letting her teacher down. Because she really loves her teacher. And she didn’t want to put that teacher in the position of having to scold her, or punish her. We even went so far as to suggest that if this behavior kept up, she might have to stop going to school.
Like any five year old, her days sometimes begin with the declaration that she doesn’t want to go to school, but she loves school. This idea, this threat, really seemed to penetrate.
But about that pivot:
Lying and cheating are not the same thing. Saying you brushed your teeth when you didn’t (and this is a paranoia really, she has only very recently started being told to brush her teeth on her own rather than do it with one of us) is not the same thing as cheating. Cheating is both more and less serious than lying. Cheating in thumb wars or Chutes and Ladders is done in plain sight and almost as a joke–and it is not allowed! There is outrage, but always with laughter.
Cheating, on the other hand, almost always has a victim. The words in its definition are more sinister: Deceive, defraud, trick.
What they have in common is the implied shame of being caught.
Shame, and disgrace, are interesting themes in novels. Coeztee’s “Disgrace,” and Roth’s “The Human Stain,” come to mind for men. Also Franzen’s “Freedom.” For women the list is much longer: “Madam Bovary,” “The Scarlet Letter.” (Help me out here–There must be Great Shamed Women novels from the 20th Century, they are escaping me at the moment.) In these novels the question–the curiosity–comes from examining how much a person can endure, and how they endure it.
In the case of Lance Armstrong, the question is how much of this we can endure? How much of his face must we see? How much of this hollowness, this unhealthiness? By this I mean not just the man, but the circus.
“We are drawn to people who seduce and use us,” wrote Michael Wolfe about Armstrong (and Jody Foster). The “we” he was talking about were media people, but it’s a resonant line. That’s one thing about little kids: they are not hollow. And even though they make you complicit in all sorts of difficult moral situations, spiritual depravity is usually not one of them.
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