“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.”
I recently had a difficult conversation with a loved one. I’ve never been good at confrontation, and I knew that if I answered their questions honestly it would be impossible to keep from inflicting pain. Just a few wrong words had the potential to impact our relationship far into the future, so before answering, I paused and asked myself one question:
What’s your goal?
If lack of pain wasn’t a goal I could achieve, and reconciliation might not be, either, what was a goal I COULD strive for? After much thought, I came up with an answer:
Speak the truth, as kindly as you can.
I’ve spent much of my life lying, in one form or another. I learned the rules of the social game early and began suppressing thoughts I knew weren’t welcome and catering my responses to obtain the desired outcome. White lies, lies of omission, lies to avoid hurting people’s feelings, likes to hide difficult truths, all sorts of lies aimed at one goal:
(Also known as: be accepted, don’t rock the boat, don’t make people angry, protect others from pain…)
I wanted to be liked by my family, partners, friends, coworkers, hell, I even wanted to be liked by strangers in the check-out line. And my primary methods of attempting to achieve this likability have been the omitting of truth and the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) bending of truth to slant it toward my own likability.
Recently, I read a single sentence which rocked my world:
“When you tell the truth, you are free simply by virtue of describing what is so.”
In that moment, through Brad Blanton’s words, I realized there is another, better, goal to strive toward than Be Liked:
Several years ago, I began working to be more deliberately honest with another goal in mind: to build authentic friendships. I decided to speak the whole truth at all times and risk losing some people, if it meant my relationships with others grew deeper. With Blanton’s words, however, I realized that this goal, though slightly better than “Be Liked,” is still a bad one. They both focus on and require the participation of another person, and though I worked hard at being truthful, “Build Friendships” warred with “Be Honest.” I still found myself holding back or scrambling to find the “right” words that would cast me in the best light, because being honest requires us to speak the whole truth. It requires a willingness to disagree with those whose opinions we don’t share, and requires us to inflict pain on occasion. According to Blanton:
“Telling the truth means telling everything you have hidden that you have done in the past to the very people who you think would be most hurt or angry or surprised or embarrassed by the revelations… The first thing you have to get over to tell the truth is politeness—modification of your report of your experience out of ‘consideration’ of the other person’s feelings.* That is, unless your spouse gets a clear feeling from your report of how much fun it was when you f*ked his best friend, you haven’t told the truth yet.”
This sounds horrific and almost guaranteed to result in the loss of a relationship or two hundred. But the moment I understood FREEDOM as a goal, this kind of “radical” honesty made sense. Freedom doesn’t require anyone else’s participation. It stands regardless of anyone’s opinion and exists regardless of where I am or who I’m with.
The truth is, no matter what we do, how hard we strive, or what stories we tell, reactions and feelings and opinions are not something we can control. No matter how many “right things” we say or difficult truths we withhold or skew, we can’t determine how someone else will respond. But unlike likability, honesty is a behavior. Honesty is something we can choose. And the resulting freedom is an experience we have access to, whenever we want it.
I spoke with a friend recently who expressed fear that if she told the truth she might lose some of the important people in her life. It’s a legitimate fear. It speaks directly to our biologically hard-wired need to belong. Thinking out loud, I asked: “what if freedom is better than belonging?” But today it occurs to me: What if freedom IS belonging? I recall a conversation between Maya Angelou and Bill Moyers:
Angelou: You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great…
Moyers: Do you belong anywhere?
Angelou: I haven’t yet.
Moyers: Do you belong to anyone?
Angelou: More and more… I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.
Freedom is the way we keep in right relationship with ourselves, regardless of our relationships with others. Freedom is a much better goal.
An interesting thing happened when I spoke the truth to my loved one. During the course of the conversation, I was able to see the other side just a little more clearly. I acknowledged and admitted some of my own mistakes, developed a greater understanding, and learned some important lessons about my own judgments. In the end, though feelings might have been hurt, the conversation allowed for greater connection, and I came away with a little more compassion and a little more love. Isn’t this what life is all about? Isn’t this the work we’re called to do while on this earth?
“Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Christ.”
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.”
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
—Ephesians 4:15, Galatians 5:1, 5:15
* I, personally, disagree with Blanton’s opinion that in order to tell the truth we must disregard politeness or consideration for another person’s feelings. While I do believe there are times when this is true, I also believe it is our responsibility to “speak the truth in love” by carefully considering how best to phrase our truths in a way which causes as little damage as possible—the surgeon slicing with a scalpel in an effort to heal vs. the soldier swinging a sword for the purpose of killing. Words have both the power to heal and do irreparable damage. Sometimes that damage is unavoidable—the very surgery aimed at healing often kills. But I believe it is our job to always do our best to reach for the scalpel not the sword.