He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love it to Death: The Love in Truth

It is said that, "In wine there is truth."  This does have a certain amount of truth to it; when under the influence of alcohol, a person's inhibitions are often lowered, for good or ill.  In this state, the one who speaks will often say things that they would normally be reluctant to say because of the risk involved.  In certain cultures, drinking strong alcoholic beverages was a means of discovering what people really think and feel.

In those cultures, it was understood that when people can ignore the risks of speaking their mind, the result is genuine honesty.  What was important was ensuring honesty, whether the speaker's honesty was comfortable for them or not; they valued honesty so highly that they were willing to risk hearing something profoundly uncomfortable.  In those cultures, honesty was often a matter of life and death, the lives of their friends and families depending on the sharing of information, no matter how unappealing.

Even today, there are many places in the world in which honesty is a matter of life and death, but in the United States and many other post-industrial Western nations, honesty is rarely a matter of life and death.  Speaking the truth as we see it in genuine honesty always requires that we as the speaker take a risk; the nature of this risk can range from a mild rebuke to banishment from social groups to death by the mob or the state, depending on the society in which we live.  Avoiding this risk means that we often (at best) attempt to do honesty the easy way.

It is easy to begin to value honesty less and less in practice when the consequences of dishonesty become gradually less severe, perhaps to disappear entirely.  It becomes easier to omit part of what we want to say to another person because they might be offended.  It becomes easier to use comforting platitudes as a substitute for honest remarks.  It becomes easier to remain silent when others are doing something to harm themselves, to "support" them as they cut themselves because it helps them cope with life.

What is worse is that we can often reward dishonesty, providing an incentive against honesty in the sense that we give our friendship to those who refuse to share with us difficult truths about ourselves as they see them, taking that friendship away from those who are willing to take the risk of sharing with us difficult truths about ourselves as they see them.  It is easy to shut out those voices that tell us anything other than the sweet, seductive lie that we are perfect just the way we are and need not change one bit.

After believing that lie about our own impeccability, it is also easy to feel free to go on a crusade to spread the truth as we see it, but still only in the easy ways.  It is easier to proclaim the truth as we see it without admitting how many years and how much effort was required for us to find that truth, presenting our answers as the obvious answers.  It is easier to omit our struggles and doubts as we present the truth as we see it in terse sentences and harsh tones.  It is easier to spend our time delivering harsh truths to others while leaving little time for accepting the harsh truths about ourselves.

These forms of easy honesty have little to do with truth; they are honesty only in the sense that we are not telling an outrageous lie, but rather allowing the truth in our hearts to die because we are too fearful of taking the risk required for genuine honesty.  This easy honesty, based on falsehood and fear, is not an honesty worth offering to those we love.

The honesty worth offering to those we love is a very different kind of honesty, a fearless honesty based on truth.  This honesty is a difficult honesty; it requires us to be honest with ourselves, to reject the lie that we are impeccable and that others are always in need of our rapid correction by way of the harsh truth as we see it.  It requires the difficult admission that the work of finding the truth is long and arduous, that we endured many struggles and doubts along the way.

It is difficult to accept these truths about ourselves.  It is difficult to accept the truth that we have failed to be honest with others by omitting necessary truths, not out of love, but out of fear that we might lose their approval.  It is difficult to accept the truth that we have spoken comforting platitudes rather than honest remarks, not out of love, but because we did not want to take the risk that comes along with love.  It is difficult to admit that we have, many times, not been honest with someone who was harming themselves, not out of love, but because they will respond more pleasantly to us if we remain silent about the matter.

It is difficult to accept that we may have punished honesty with ostracism, removing from our lives those who loved us enough to take the risk to speak the truth as they see it.  It is difficult to accept that we may be retaining our friends not on the basis of the strength of their love for us, but rather on the strength of their desire to keep us in their lives regardless of what harm we might do to ourselves.

What we need is not a friend who is never sufficiently honest to risk making a statement which will offend someone, but rather a society in which we all love one another sufficiently to reach out in love and speak a truth that may save a person from a life of unhappiness.  We need to listen to the harsh truths spoken to us, accepting them in the light of love as being worthy of serious consideration because of the risk the speaker is taking to bring them forward.  Our friend's love may be hidden under the blanket of anger concealing their hurt, but it is generally those who care deeply who are willing to risk losing our friendship to have a chance at bettering our lives.

This is not to say that there are no genuinely hurtful statements, but to affirm that we should not respond out of that hurt, instead responding in a loving way that transcends our pain.  This is not to say that we must agree with them, but to affirm that we must receive their harsh truths in the same spirit of love and openness with which we expect them to receive our harsh truths.  This is not to say that we need to endorse our friend's anger, but to affirm that we should understand that the anger usually stems from their fear that we might be gravely wounded by our choices.

What parent has not once spoken in a harsh tone to a child about to run in front of a moving car or burn themselves on a hot pan?  What friend has never strongly advised another friend to avoid dating someone who was a bad match for them?  When we have done these things, did we not speak out in a spirit of love?

Speaking the truth is best done in the spirit of love, a humble disposition which acknowledges that the greatest truth to be found is the truth found in love, and that the greatest truth to be spoken is the truth spoken in love.  If we would give the gift of the difficult honesty which is worth offering to those we love, then we must be willing to accept the gift of difficult honesty offered to us by others.  If we would have others speak truth to us in a spirit of love, then we must love to death the fear which prevents us from speaking the truth to them in love.

We must put the love in truth by our willingness to accept the risk of losing a friend for the sake of accomplishing their good, by offering those we love the difficult honesty which admits our own weaknesses as we help them with their weaknesses, and by accepting their difficult honesty as an act of love.  It is thus that our truth becomes truth in the fullest sense; only the truest love can show us that the Truth requires us to set aside our fear and sacrifice our comfort for the greater good of others. 

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