I’m only a few years older than Manti Te’o. When the push notification hit my phone a few days ago I was stunned. How could such a hoax transpire? Major news corporations covered the story extensively. Lengthy exclusive interviews were conducted and countless questions were asked. How could no one have suspected his deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, wasn’t real? But why would anyone suspect she wasn’t real? Our initial reaction to a gut-wrenching story isn’t to suspect its validity. When a story is that compelling and powerful and heart wrenching it has to be true, right?
And the story continues to unfold. Some think it was Te’o all along, others vehemently claim Te’o is the victim of a horrendous crime. Whatever the truth, Manti has been living a lie. I know what that’s like.
We all do, don’t we? What begins as a short story to make a point or impress someone, or simply get out of a situation turns into a recurring statement and somehow transforms itself into an apparent fact. To quote Jon Foreman, “the fact is fiction.”
And when this happens there are a few things you can do. The obvious, and, from the outside, the apparent easiest, is to come clean: to put the truth forward and to admit the lie. But when the fact is fiction, the speaker often can’t separate the two. Because a fiction turned fact insidiously wends its way into all areas of life. What began as trying to impress someone or gain sympathy turns into a common conversation with your friends or a statement that gains you worldwide attention. To remove the fiction is to risk collapsing your life.
And if your life collapses, as Te’o’s appears to be doing, the options are even more limited: run or fight. Neither is much fun. I ran. And I ran fast, leaving the rubble to fall in heaping piles behind me until months later I came back and began removing the debris to find a path through. It’s not easy and it’s incredibly painful, both to yourself and to everyone you’re affecting. When things collapse there is no telling who the debris may hit and, more so, there is always someone at the very bottom of the pile. And often the person at the very bottom of the pile is the person you, yourself, put there.
To fight, as it appears Te’o is now doing, is to risk even more. It’s to risk allowing more fictions to come bubbling to the surface, to admit you were duped or that you did the duping. It’s to risk allowing the debris to continue falling. Either way, it’s a mental battlefield.
So now the biggest concern facing Te’o isn’t his NFL future but his mental well-being. Te’o is faced with separating the fact from fiction, whether amongst his friends or within his own mind, or both. He’s faced with the opportunity to come clean about the truth, or run, and it makes me concerned for him. It causes me to pray that he makes it through this, and that those around him come close and speak truth to a troubled man.
Because I’m not that different from Te’o. I’m fighting the battle of fact v. fiction, and I know how true both sides appear. I know how damaging a fiction turned fact can be. We all do. And we’re all better than our worst fiction turned fact. I know that now, and I pray Manti does as well.
Brian Ballard is the Chief Content Officer for Red Letter Christians.
Photo via Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images