When the truth doesn’t fit the narrative

John's Fence 2048x
The edge of my next-door neighbor’s yard


Everything you’re about to read is true. Except for one thing.

My next-door neighbor — we’ll call him John — is a perfectly nice guy. He doesn’t throw loud parties or own a dog that barks at all hours (that’s a different neighbor) or randomly set off fireworks (that’s a bunch of other neighbors).

John lives with his aging mom, who is also a perfectly nice person. They have several cats, which don’t run around the neighborhood, throw wild parties, set off fireworks, etc. John and his mom plant a garden and are generous with their tomatoes and cucumbers. There are columbines growing just over the lot line from our property and we welcome the flowers that are now growing in our flowerbed.

John’s a conservative. His Steve King tee shirt was a tip off. John’s mom also leans right, which was made apparent recently when she shared some misinformation about Barack Obama. It wasn’t mean or overtly racist, it was just just wrong and was being used to draw some comparison between the last president and the current one.

A couple weeks ago, I saw John doing some maintenance on his air conditioner and we chatted a little. I told him that our old AC unit which would probably croak one of these days but that we were avoiding major home improvements right now due to the uncertain employment outlook (global pandemic, economic free fall, etc.).

John asked about my employment and I told him I’m still working for now. Knowing that he works in a long-term care facility and that those workplaces have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, I asked him if everyone in his workplace was well. John said, “Yes, and I think about 90% of this is politically motivated.”

I immediately saw red. I winced and told John that I strongly disagreed with his statement. I think John offered to listen to my views, but the last thing that I wanted was a conversation about politics with my Steve King loving, Fox News viewing, next-door neighbor.

I shot back, “I have friends who are dead.”

I walked back inside and went downstairs to get something from the laundry, clocking myself for the umpteenth time on a low clearance in that steep, old stairway. How short were people when this house was built, anyway?

I decided to get out of the house briefly, so I left, making the short drive to a nearby farm and ranch supply store to buy some bird seed.

I wore a face mask. The sales clerks didn’t. Neither did many of the customers.

Did somebody sound the coronavirus all-clear? What’s wrong with these people?

Anyway, I bought my bird seed and headed home.

And somewhere along the way, after I’d calmed down a bit and turned over the conversation in my slightly rattled brain, I realized something important: what I’d said to my neighbor in a moment of righteous indignation wasn’t actually true.

I did not have friends who’d died from COVID-19.

And yet I said it. Why?

First of all, it wasn’t an intentional lie. I actually thought it was a true statement when I said it.

Second, I know a lot of people seriously affected. I have an acquaintance who lost a sister, though I don’t consider him a close friend and I didn’t know her at all. I have acquaintances who tested positive after being exposed through an asymptomatic coworker. I have a colleague who lost two longtime friends in recent weeks. I have friends from college with an adult son who got sick. I have a friend who was very sick in the early days of the pandemic and was presumed to have the virus, though I don’t know whether that presumption was ever confirmed. And I now know of other acquaintances who were infected and had varying degrees of illness.

But I don’t have dead friends. And furthermore, I don’t want dead friends. I don’t want anyone close to me to die from COVID-19, as if that would somehow, belatedly, justify my false statement.

And since I really do place a high value on the truth, why did I say something that was untrue?

Did my own bias get in the way? I think it did. I really didn’t want to have a political discussion with John. I already knew a little about John’s politics, and he’d previously hinted that he was skeptical about the COVID-19 pandemic. What was the point of debating it?

But why was this such a hot button for me?

I live in a Midwestern city that was recently the hottest COVID-19 hot spot in the country. The metro area is home to two huge meat processing plants where the virus apparently spread widely. The exact connection between these essential industries and the spread of the disease is not known, for several reasons, but mainly because testing is so relatively limited.

The big businesses that have been implicated in making Woodbury and Dakota counties the second most infected counties in Iowa and Nebraska, respectively, have been reluctant to volunteer information. The health departments in these neighboring states and counties are also playing by different rules.

A lot of workers in meatpacking plants are Black, Latino, Asian and/or immigrants. Is the rest of America really connected to the people who are doing this essential work for the world’s food supply and economy?

I’ve been continuously employed since the nation freaked out over COVID-19 in March. While I’m grateful to have a job, I’ve seen a lot of behavior that causes me grave concerns for my own health as well as everybody else’s.

My workplace has been the scene of a lot of conversation about the pandemic. I avoid these as much as possible (like the plague, as it were) but sometimes people are pretty assertive about sharing views with a captive audience.

And both politics and the pandemic have strained or broken relationships outside work, online and off.

So I guess I could argue that the pandemic has killed a lot of friendships, if not the friends themselves. But none of this justifies getting so carried away trying to win or simply to end an argument. I was really opinionated and when the facts were out of sync with my position — that people who disagree with me on this subject just don’t get it — I made an exaggerated claim to my own authority.

In other words, when the truth didn’t fit the narrative, I made something up.

I’m not proud of it. It was bogus and embarrassing and utterly unfair. I made it a point to apologize to John the other day, both for the way I reacted and for saying something that I later realized was untrue.

This has been sobering moment in a world of alarming realities. It’s going to make me a lot more careful about what I say in a heated discussion, and much more circumspect about the claims others are making.

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