Tired and grumpy, I got a bit harsh with my slightly lazy eight-year-old son about his messy-room-that-never-seems-to-actually-get-cleaned the other night. As the words came out, I knew instinctively that I’d crossed the mean-mama line, so I returned awhile later to apologize for my tone, “I’m sorry I snipped at you about your room, buddy.”
His grinning response didn’t miss a beat, “Snipped?!? You didn’t snip at me – you lashed me – with whips and chains!”
He’s a truth-teller, that kid . . . and there’s nothing like being reminded that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Some days, I’m a bit of a truth-teller myself, and I’ve learned it’s not always the most popular trait in a person. Truth-tellers are wired to poke holes, ask questions, point out inconsistencies, question accepted norms – often for the value of the greater-good, but usually at the cost of keeping-the-peace.
I have an on-going internal conversation about the value of being a truth-teller, of saying the things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud. On one hand, there’s an internal sigh of relief when somebody finally comments that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes but on the other hand, people don’t always take kindly to the reality that they’ve been playing along with a lie. It’s a tricky line to walk, one I haven’t always known how to balance along well. While it’s easy to communicate dissent in angry, frustrated and polarizing ways, it’s not always the most effective manner of helping the truth actually be listened to and considered.
Thankfully, the years are slowly teaching me how to straddle the tensions of being a truth-teller, and through the gifts of the spiritual disciplines and faithful friends, I’ve developed a few guidelines for better managing this innate part of myself.
Be gentle. Sometimes provocative statements are useful to highlight a hard truth, but only when used sparingly. Even though I personally enjoy people who tell it like it is, even I begin to dismiss a person who makes frequent inciting statements because it seems like all they care about is stirring the pot instead of letting the flavors simmer together so they actually taste good. When I write about divisive issues, I often sit on potentially controversial phrases for a while to evaluate whether they’re helpful or harmful for the larger conversation at hand. My go-to question is often, “How can I tell the truth boldly and gently?”
Check ulterior motives. It’s easy to subconsciously enjoy the attention that comes with telling the truth. Sometimes such boldness brings a silent pause, focusing the attention for a moment on the giver. Being a teacher and a writer means that I’m accustomed to a good measure of attention focused on me, so it’s always wise for me to consider if my motives are self-seeking or truly a voice for greater good. If I can’t determine my motives, it’s likely a sign I need to remain quiet.
Speak slowly. James’ words say it well: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” While this is much easier said than done, there are no exemptions given. Sadly, some use this passage to stifle truth-tellers completely, but it’s still important to remember that some who see themselves as truth-tellers speak and grow angry far too quickly. Quite frankly, this is counter-productive and harmful to the conversations in which we participate. If we can’t speak the truth slowly and patiently (sometimes over years), we need to spend time pondering if we should even be speaking at all.
Remember the human. In sharp disagreement, it’s easy to turn people into ideas. When a person ceases to exist, we tend to hear only their words and not their hearts. My mom used to say that occasionally when they struggled to love someone in their world, they’d invite them for dinner to hear their stories. She found that it’s a whole lot harder to see someone solely as an ideology when you know their personal story. In all of our worlds – work, church, family, friends, online – we must first remember the people we speak of and with are humans worthy of respect simply because they are created in the image of Christ.
Learn from those with opposite strengths. Being a former skeptic, faith is not one of my stronger spiritual gifts. However, I once heard a friend share her story of struggle, and it was laced with a fierce type of faith I had never known myself. While the skeptic in me wanted to dismiss what I didn’t understand, I instead allowed myself to admire something in her that I didn’t see in myself and to be grateful for it. It was astonishingly freeing to allow myself the luxury to learn from someone different than me, instead of mentally critiquing them.
Step away. Because I write about the controversial topic of race, every so often I’ll get a cutting tweet or comment. While I can rationally tell myself that these comments come from just a few people who may-or-may-not-be-sane, I still find myself distracted by them on occasion. When their words grow too loud in my head, I know I need to step away for a bit, sit with the Lord, and give myself some space to remember why I speak and who I speak for. Angry conversations rarely prove to be productive, and if my purpose is to foster productive conversations about difficult topics, I’m not helping matters if I can’t stay calm and focused on bringing light, not heat, to the issues at hand.
Society desperately needs truth-tellers who have the boldness, wisdom and maturity to use their gifts responsibly for the greater good – not to wield power for their own gain. While the faith-gifted folks may get a better wrap, without the truth-tellers there would be no Dietrich Bonhoffers or Mother Teresas or Cornel Wests to guide us toward a better way of living together. Whatever your gifts, may you lean into them with courage, faithfulness and humility so that together we might all learn to walk alongside one another in a better way.