The stories that resonate most deeply with us are those that are honest. We appreciate authors and actors and songwriters who take off their masks and tell it like it is. Perhaps this can best be seen in the New York Times’ Most-Read Stories of 2016. The No. 1 story, by quite a large margin, was Alain de Botton’s article about Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.
Why was this article so popular? The author speaks honestly about a topic that rarely receives honest attention. He describes the very real challenges and idiosyncrasies in romantic relationships, and points out how little our culture – or even our romantic partners – admit to these challenges. “We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them,” he writes. This honesty can be painful to hear in a culture that is obsessed with idealistic optimism and hiding weakness at all costs, but it can inspire us when we know that the challenges in our own lives are not unique.
The honest sharing of weaknesses, as de Botton models in his article about marriage, is a core component of the Christian Gospel. The historical church embodied this in the practice of public confession, an opportunity for believers to proclaim their shortcomings week after week. “This regular, stark, uncomfortable confession of sin doesn’t seem like something that would be ‘enjoyed’ by seekers,” writes James K. A. Smith in You Are What You Love. “It raises difficult questions and brings us face-to-face with disquieting truths about ourselves… But what if the opportunity to confess is precisely what we long for?”
Admitting faults and messiness is hard in most aspects of life, but perhaps it is extra difficult in relation to our faith. It isn’t easy to disclose doubts, speak up about questions, or divulge seasons of experiencing God’s distance. But just like almost everyone can relate to de Botton’s honesty about the difficulties of romantic relationships, most Christians can relate to moments of spiritual weakness. This is even the subject of Martin Scorsese’s new movie Silence, a film about two missionaries who, as the title suggests, experience God’s prolonged silence. Even the lives of the saints were characterized with deep pangs of doubt. The 16th century priest Saint John of the Cross famously wrote about this common experience in faith, calling it the “dark night of the soul.” He argued that moments of doubt are not something to be feared or hidden, but are in fact a sign of growing maturity. Part of the power in sharing our true struggles is that it presents a counter narrative that combats the heavy burdens of perfectionism. If no one speaks honestly, there will be no limits to the damage caused by faulty narratives in our culture.
Honest sharing also enables us to understand that we are more alike our neighbor than different. Father James Martin, S. J., describes a practice he experienced while in the Jesuit novitiate. Each Sunday night, the community gathered for “faith sharing.” They talked about where they had experienced God in the week, and what their prayer life was like. In the style of Alcoholics Anonymous, no one was allowed to comment on another’s sharing. They were not there to fix one another, but to listen. As Martin puts it, “After a few weeks, I became not only amazed at how God was at work in their lives, but also more tolerant of their foibles. When one novice was short-tempered, I remembered that he had been dealing with a difficult situation in his family. When another was sullen, I remembered that he was dealing with an intractable problem in his ministry.” This group sharing allowed Martin to be more compassionate toward others because he knew there was a benevolent interpretation for their actions. Alain de Botton talks about the same concept in a recent interview. He describes the way we naturally show understanding and compassion with children. If a child says “I hate you” to their parent, the parent knows the child may be tired or hungry or something else has gone wrong. They look for a benevolent interpretation. “We do this naturally with children, and yet we do it so seldom with adults,” he says.
The funny thing about sharing flaws is that this very process will also be flawed. Sometimes you will share too much too soon, sometimes you will not be able to handle what your friend shares, and sometimes you will uncover a question that shakes the foundation of your beliefs. Yes, you will fail, but that’s okay. Those are the moments where the compassion you extend to others must be extended to yourself.
Perhaps we don’t need to be so afraid about sharing our faults. Let’s be honest about the challenges in our workplaces, in our relationships, in our families. Let’s share the doubts and questions that come up in our spiritual journey. Let’s not limit honesty to rare experiences of “sharing our story,” but instead let this honesty permeate our day-to-day interactions. Those around us undoubtedly struggle with similar things, and our honesty may lead to more mature conversations and deeper compassion for one another.
Rob is a member of the Communications Team.