Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sermon: "Forthrightness" (Delivered 9-21-2008)

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Tell all the truth but tell it slant. In this most famous of Emily Dickinson’s poems, she offers advice on how to speak with honesty so that the person to whom you are speaking is able to hear the truth, and not close off from it because it is too difficult to hear. Dickinson’s poem would perhaps prefigure that famous line from the movie A Few Good Men in which Jack Nicholson declares “You can’t handle the truth.”

This morning I want to talk about honesty, about standards of communication, about how being honest (or less than honest) impacts the nature of our relationships, the quality of our community, and, even, how the forthrightness or lack of forthrightness in our communication tells us something about our religious lives. Related to this central theme there are lots of interesting questions: Can we, in fact, handle the truth? What does it mean to be authentic? When speaking a difficult truth is at odds with good manners, which should take precedence? I will endeavor this morning, so help me God, to give you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, un-slanted. But the truth about the truth is that there are layers of complexity and nuance, matters worthy of our most careful considerations, so we will try to figure our way through this maze together.

I will always remember, as a 22 year old seminarian, attending a reception for first year students at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston. I made myself into a wallflower and stood off in the corner of the room concentrating on not letting the cheese fall off of my cracker. Then UUA President John Buehrens approached me and greeted me. I confessed to him that gatherings like these made me feel a bit awkward as I was a bit of an introvert. His response surprised me. “So am I,” he said. “In fact two-thirds of ministers, perhaps even more are introverts.” This fact was difficult to reconcile. After all, why would an introvert choose to risk getting up in front a room, week after week, to deliver original compositions? Why would an introvert pursue a vocation that would call on her or him to give television interviews, testify in front of legislatures, speak at rallies, and offer extemporaneous prayers or in front of a roomful of strangers? And, for that matter, what about all those social settings where you are expected to be engaging, witty, and a presence that sets others at ease? I’m still an introvert but I am a whole lot better at cracker-balancing and social events than I was a decade ago.

Over the years I learned that introverts and extroverts each have a shadow-side. Sometimes, others consider introverts to be closed, guarded, extremely private, and, at times, even distant or disinterested. Extroverts, on the other hand, are often considered to be fake, disingenuous, and inauthentic. Extroverts are accused of gregariously trying to please others and, in so doing they can be accused of being chameleon-like, of suppressing their true selves in order to curry favor with others.

Who are you really and for what do you stand? Whenever we meet another person – in the streets, on the airplane, in an assembly, at coffee hour, we have the chance to actually discover the truth about that other person, if they are willing to let us in through their defenses.

Having lived in different geographic regions of the country – the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and Texas (which, I think counts as its own region) – I’ve seen how different geographical areas are known for different styles of interpersonal communication. Bostonians have a reputation for being in-your-face, rude, and abrupt. There is a joke that if you are visiting Boston and ask a local what time it is, the local will answer, “That sweater doesn’t look good on you.” In fact, when I first moved to Kansas City, I brought a bit of Boston with me in the form of my driving habits. For about the first six months I drove up and down Metcalf using the horn on my car liberally. (Massachusetts liberalism is secondarily political; primarily the liberalism has to do with the interpretation of traffic laws.) The first time I had a passenger ride with me here in town, the passenger was mortified, as I drove down Metcalf laying on the horn. In their mind, I was rude. In my own mind, I was giving other drivers the courtesy of making them aware if they committed a driving faux pas such as failing to use a blinker, or not noticing that the traffic light was green and it was time to drive forward. It was a ministry.

Contrast this with the stereotype of a person from Dallas, where I lived for a year. In Dallas, everyone seemed so nice, at least face to face. Social interactions were well-lubricated by a code of public manners; friction and conflict were to be avoided at all cost. Honest assessments of one another were reserved for private communications. Or, in other words, you could hear one woman tell another woman that the sweater one is wearing is absolutely marvelous on her and then tell her friends, moments later, that the sweater was hideous and unflattering. Men did the same thing, often with a healthy dose of profanity mixed in.

And, here in the Kansas City metro area, we live at the intersection, the crossroads, the place where Southern Midwest nice meets Northern Midwest nice. I am no expert on Northern Midwest nice, but I would suggest that while Southern manners seeks to avoid all forms of public conflict, Northern Midwestern manners (as far as I can tell from listening to Garrison Keillor) is more inclined to not only diminish public conflict, but private conflict as well. Honest opinions and judgments are stuffed, or only shared in the tremendous intimacy of the closest of relationships, with the result being that those negative thoughts have little opportunity for release and they can dwell, on and on, within us.

Of course, I have just stereotyped three geographic regions. My comments have been, at most, vaguely general and certainly not universal. So, perhaps setting these ideas of geographic determinism aside, we should look at our own habits and practices of authentic communication and honesty in our own church community and in our own lives.

So, where on the continuum of honesty and openness would you place yourself? Are you brutally honest and openly outspoken, and, if so, how has that worked for you? Do you put on a public persona that is agreeable and polite only to fork your tongue when making private utterances? Or, do you follow the teachings of some motherly figure who advised you not to speak unless you have something nice to say, and, if so, what do you do with those things that proper manners prevent you from expressing? I know that none of us struggle with these concerns, that as Unitarian Universalists we have all grown so enlightened that all of our thoughts about other people are charitable and that we are utterly imperturbable. Our hackles cannot be raised. Our goat cannot be got.

But, on the off chance that you know somebody who could stand to hear this message, I will share my thoughts anyways.

The title I’ve given to this sermon is “forthrightness.” It was a deliberate choice of a word. Nowadays, you often hear a person referred to as honest, trustworthy, or even “bold” if they describe themselves as someone who doesn’t subscribe to social conventions that honor keeping everybody happy.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a person describe themselves or anybody else as “forthright.” It is an antiquated word that, according to the dictionary, is said to mean, “Going straight to the point, being frank, direct, and outspoken, communicating without evasion, having directness in manner and speech without subtlety.”

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Kansas City public library to hear Stephen Pinker, the famous MIT and Harvard professor, speak about his newest book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. During his talk, Pinker talked about two types of speech, private and public speech. Private speech is coded in such a way that there is plausible deniability about what you are really saying, even though every person who hears the utterance knows what is being said. Public speech is literal and direct and takes away the possibility of plausible deniability. This concept is best understood if I give you an example.

Suppose you are on the phone with somebody, and the person on the other end of the line says, “Wow, it is getting late.” That would be an example of private communication. The person who you are talking to is really saying, “I wish for this conversation to end.” You understand this coded language so you wrap it up and say, “Well, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. Have a great night.” I suppose if you didn’t understand the coded language, you might respond. “Yes, it is rather late at night. Have you seen any good movies lately?”

What makes the statement “Wow, it is getting late,” private is that while each side understands what is being said, there is plausible deniability because the actual meaning of the phrase, “Wow, it is getting late,” is never actually spoken. Nobody would ever end a phone call by saying, “I wish for this conversation to end now.” Pinker explained that in private forms of communication, both sides understand the code, but there is plausible deniability about whether you know that the other side knows what you really mean.

We make statements like, “Wow, it is getting late,” hundreds of times every day. Please don’t misunderstand me. These forms of communication are civil and good mannered. But, it occurs to me that if these sayings flow so easily from our tongues, we may default to this setting when what is actually called for is forthrightness and hard honesty.

There are times when speaking the truth without telling it slant can be profound. In May Sarton’s moving book, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year, she writes extremely straightforwardly about her experience of aging,

“This seems to be about the darkest passage of my life. I am not only in more pain that I have been in for over a year and more exhausted in consequence, but it is as if the foundations were crumbling; I realize more and more that the foundations have been friendship. And the friends, naturally enough, are getting fed up with my being ill and never getting well. There have been a few incidents recently that rubbed this in, so I have gone back to that bitter poem by Robert Frost, ‘Provide Provide,’ which I remember reading when I was in my twenties, and thought , What a terrible man. What a wrong poem. Now that I am almost eighty and feel abandoned, I reckon that the poem is true, and I am glad he wrote it.”

That Frost poem, by the way, describes a Hollywood starlet whose world was once her oyster but now is forgotten and ignored. The poem ends with these stanzas.
Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on simply being true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
So, what is the point here? Both Sarton and Frost are speaking of something ugly and difficult but they are also transgressing social codes of communication to say something that is, frankly, uncomfortable and also true to their own experience.

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of an awkward situation on a plane flight. She is sitting next to a man with health problems who spills yogurt all over himself. In embarrassment, the man pretends as if the yogurt is not spilled and stares out the window. It is only when Remen takes a damp towel and wipes off the man’s shoes that he shares the depth of his vulnerability. Remen responds by telling him about her own health problems. Intimacy is discovered in this difficult vulnerability.

[An enormous note of thanks is due to my colleague, Rev. Eva Cameron, who shared the Sarton quote and Rachel Naomi Remen story with me.]

How does being honest (or less than honest) impact the nature of our relationships, the quality of our community? What does the forthrightness or lack of forthrightness in our communication say about our religious lives?

Emily Dickinson seems to call for a kind of imprecise speech, a slanted truth, that doesn’t rock the boat. Sarton and Frost speak difficult truths directly. Rachel Remen, by being honest at the same time as she is compassionate, inspires connection when she could have, just as easily, walled herself off from her fellow traveler.

As a congregation, we are all fellow travelers. We share a lateral relationship that is ours to create. We determine the extent to which it will be shallow or intimate, closed or open, private or public. We determine whether our inter-relatedness will be so bound by manners or so superficial that directness and honesty will be excluded. In the words of our Intern Minister, Anne Griffiths, “We know we are dancing when we actually step on each other’s toes.”

This ability to be a bit more forthright with each other is just the first step, not the final challenge. It is only when we are able to be honest, direct, vulnerable, and authentic with each other that we even begin to be able to do the same with that force that is greater than us, whether we call it God or the ground of being, our deepest selves or the spirit of life.

Allow me to be bold enough to suggest another name for the Divine: “The stranger who wishes to know us as we truly are.” Blessed Be and Amen.