Some Christians say that Jesus commanded them to "speak the truth in love," even though it may seem rare to see anyone putting that into practice. It was actually a passing comment made by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 4:15), but it's still a useful idea. Sometimes we get caught up in being loving (or appearing to be loving, or doing what we think is going to make others love or accept us) and we fail to tell the truth. We might lie about who we really are, what we really want or think or need, what we see in other people, or the dynamics we see at work in a system. When we don't tell the truth, we aren't being loving.
Of course, we can tell the truth in an unloving way, too. We can be so blunt and direct -- and maybe even confrontational -- that the truth we express isn't very well received. Some people even get the cause-and-effect of this twisted around, thinking that their truth-telling gets a bad reaction from people rather than realizing that the way they express the truth has a lot to do with how others react. Even a lovingly-expressed truth can create some anxiety, but speaking truth without regard for a relationship is irresponsible. Actually, our reason for speaking the truth unlovingly is the same as our reason for not speaking the truth at all: fear. Dealing with our fear or anxiety about ourselves or other people is an important step toward speaking the truth hearably and lovingly. Speaking the truth is necessary for meaningful, authentic relationships, and the context of those relationships is active, unconditional love. So the way we speak the truth is as important as being willing to speak the truth.
When we aren't honest, it's always because of anxiety or fear. It may not seem that way, because we're so accustomed to a low-level of chronic anxiety that it feels normal. But when we avoid the truth, it's because we fear the consequences of the truth. We lie because we believe that someone else will react in a way that we won't like. We lie because we have something to lose. Some people are convinced that there's nothing wrong with telling a "white lie" to spare someone's feelings or to avoid a lengthy conversation with a stranger or acquaintance when you just don't have the time to spare. In his little book Lying, Sam Harris makes a compelling argument that it's always unethical or immoral to lie. Either way, lying doesn't create meaningful, authentic community.
There are all sorts of reasons we might value community enough that we're concerned about how people will react to us, though. If we find something meaningful in community, we don't want to do anything to jeopardize those relationships. That anxiety -- that we have something to lose, and we'd better be careful -- can lead us to believe that telling the truth is dangerous. Yet, we can't have the quality of community we really want and need if we keep things at a polite, surface-level veneer of social falsehoods. Community is most valuable to us when we can practice self-disclosure, and hospitality, and active and unconditional love in a safe environment. Letting our anxiety convince us not to be honest in that community means that we are in some way showing up as a false person -- that we're pretending to be someone different from who we really are -- for the sake of being accepted, or loved, or safe.
Pretending to be someone different from who you really are doesn't mean adopting a deep cover secret identity. It's simple things that erode our ability to be known and accepted for who we are. We pretend to be someone who likes gazpacho, or someone who is alright with a particular kind of humor, or someone who doesn't mind waiting 15 minutes for folks to arrive for a group activity. We may be none of those things, but we value the sense of community so highly that we feel obligated to make some sacrifices -- to give up part of ourselves -- in order to keep or strengthen that bond. Some people just call that being polite, but let's be clear about all of those times when we hide who we really are: When we hide who we really are, we lie. And when we lie about who are are, we can't be known. It isn't self-disclosure when what we disclose isn't really who we are.
We also can't be as meaningfully served by someone if we aren't honest. Yes, someone can prepare us a meal and we can sincerely appreciate it, even if it isn't our favorite food. But we can also lovingly, gratefully say: "Thank you so much for fixing dinner for me. I usually don't eat meat, but everything else here is delicious." Now, you can say that with a bit of an attitude, or you can be sincere in your gratitude that someone has done something hospitable for you. If you keep that bit of information entirely to yourself -- that you don't eat meat -- you may think you're just being polite, but what happens the next time that person prepares food for you? Do you keep lying? How many meals do you eat before you tell the truth? "Going along to get along" may be easier in some contexts, but it doesn't create meaningful, authentic community.
Serving others is also more meaningful when we're able to be honest. Some people practice "hospitality" with an ulterior motive. "I'll do something nice for this person, and then they'll owe me one. I can butter them up and then ask for this big favor, and they refuse, I can make them feel guilty." This is in no way hospitality. When we're honest with others about what we want and need, and we're honest about our interest in being of service, there's less anxiety in the exchange of hospitality and service.
In the context of meaningful, authentic community, we find loving ways to be honest. We don't engage in manipulation or playing safe. We stir honesty in equal measure alongside self-disclosure, service, and active and unconditional love. Then, when we serve others, they can legitimately trust the sincerity of our actions without worrying about ulterior motives. (To be clear, other people might suspect that we have ulterior motives when we are hospitable, but our willingness to be transparent and honest can alleviate those suspicions.) And when others serve us, they'll get sincere gratitude from us, and they'll learn more about what we appreciate. They'll learn more about what makes our hearts sing.
And while we're being honest, keep in mind that doing something that contributes to another person's well-being also does something for you. Research has demonstrated that altruism feels good. Plus, our sense of interconnectedness suggests that when the lives of people around us are moving toward greater wholeness, our own lives are enhanced. So, there's no need to get caught up in puzzling through the selfishness of service. Hospitality is always of mutual benefit, if you're willing to receive those benefits.
Even at a purely selfish level, honesty is the best way for us to get what we want and need. When we play manipulation games with people, we're always hoping people will take hints and read between the lines, or maybe that we can ensnare them in a situation where they feel obligated to give us what we want. The problem is that what we actually want requires us to be vulnerable. Having power over other people is a reaction to fear -- maybe fear that we aren't lovable or acceptable, that we don't matter, that someone is going to take advantage of us, or whatever fear might bubble up for you.
Persuading or compelling someone to do what we want seems to feel good because it alleviates that anxiety and fear for a moment. But it doesn't convince us that we are lovable or acceptable, or that we matter. It's the "consolation prize" of co-existing with others, when "first prize" is actually knowing that we are lovable, valuable, acceptable, worthy human beings. The best possible outcome is for us to get our legitimate needs met by other people who are willing to acknowledge and address those needs in legitimate ways. And we've seen that there's a mutuality built into that equation, because some of the things we need have to do with what we are able to offer to other people. The best way for people to understand and address one another's needs is for them to be honest about those needs to one another.
It may feel safer to hide parts of ourselves. It may feel vulnerable to admit that we have needs, or to reveal that we have fears about not being lovable or acceptable or worthy. But everyone wrestles with these issues in one way or another. Being human means having needs and being vulnerable. There's no shame in that. It's just reality. Honesty about that reality is one of the key features that distinguishes meaningful, authentic community from so many of the other ways we try to find community. Rather than giving up who we are in order to have connection with other human beings, we show up as we are -- as our authentic selves. We don't carry around shame about who we are, and we don't make demands for acceptance.
One person can do this, but it may freak out a lot of people, and it might be a challenge to infuse bold honesty into an anxious system where everyone is pretending to be someone they're not. A handful of people with a commitment to be in more authentic relationship with one another have a better chance of transforming an existing system to a more honest, loving, hospitable community. We'll see later on how honesty about current reality is a necessary part of casting vision for the direction of a community as a whole. For now, it's enough to see that honesty is a necessary component to blend with love, hospitality, and self-disclosure.
There's one more essential ingredient to meaningful, authentic community: affirmation. So, next time we'll explore the importance of being sincerely celebrated, and sincerely celebrating others.