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Getting tangled in a white lie

This column deals with the conflicts we find ourselves facing in daily

I met Kathy at a dinner party a few years ago. We sat next to one other, laughed at each other's jokes, and discovered that we liked the same music and authors. What more do you need when you're 24? We exchanged phone numbers and shortly thereafter began dating. Several weeks later, I met Julia. [The names of both women have been changed to protect their privacy.] She was beautiful and exciting, and satisfied more of the clichd notions of what I wanted in a girlfriend. She was also redheaded, which seemed terribly compelling at the time. I only had a couple of months before leaving town to pursue graduate studies, and I decided I would rather spend them with Julia than with Kathy. The honest course of action would have been to tell Kathy that I'd met someone else and couldn't see her anymore. But she'd grown attached to me in our short time together, and I could not bring myself to hurt her like that. So I lied. I told her that because I was leaving so soon, it would be better to end the relationship now rather than put off the inevitable. It would only be harder to end things later, I argued, when we had become even closer. I made no mention of Julia. Kathy was upset at my decision, which only reassured me I'd acted wisely. While the deceit did not sit well with me, I felt that the truth would have proven only more painful for her. Why hurt someone needlessly? At least this way she could attribute the end of the relationship to external constraints, and not to the fact that I had rejected her in favor of another. Of course, things didn't work out so smoothly. A few weeks later, as I was out with Julia and some of her friends, we encountered Kathy. I learned the two women attended the same church and were actually casual friends. It is the sort of coincidence I thought only occurred on television. It did not take more than a few days for Kathy and Julia to talk and piece together the truth. A couple of ugly confrontations later, I had lost both my friendship with Kathy and my relationship with Julia. In hindsight, I obviously wish I had been honest with everyone. Yet at the time, I was certain I was doing the right thing. The lie had seemed harmless, while the truth had seemed hurtful. Now I am not sure. Was the lie wrong in itself, or did the unfortunate circumstances that followed simply render my lie the wrong course of action? In "The Great Divorce," C.S. Lewis suggests that good and evil are two roads that never meet. Evil will not magically metamorphose into good, and our every action reflects a stark choice between the two. In my case, I chose an evil, trusting it would result in a good. Where does that leave me? Perhaps the moral judgment has as much to do with my underlying motivation as with the lie itself. While I was sparing Kathy's feelings, I was also preserving my own self-image. I wanted her to still think of me as a "good guy," not as the sort who might cheat or deceive. The lie was as much for my benefit as for hers. In the end, neither of us really believed it. Carlos Lozada is an economic analyst in Atlanta.

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