‘Honesty is the best policy… unless you want people to like you’. This one-liner sums up perfectly the difficulty of taking on board Jesus’ call from today’s gospel. Generally speaking, we usually prefer to guard our silence or to tell a little white lie instead of telling the honest but unpleasant truth. Life itself is difficult enough without creating even more difficulties! Constantly engaging in unpleasant or argumentative conversations simply doesn’t come across as an attractive trait. That puts me in a quandary. On the one hand, Jesus insists on my talking directly and honestly with those against whom I hold grudges. And I ought to take Jesus seriously. On the other hand, such action virtually guarantees the souring of relationships – at best, just for a while; at worst, permanently. So, I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t. Or am I?
Our apprehension about talking honestly and openly with people comes mostly from our previous experiences. What are they? Generally speaking, there are two standard ways of delivering honest opinions. The ancient Romans defined the first one concisely: ‘in vino veritas’, which means that under the influence of alcohol, a person tells the truth. The second standard means of delivering honest opinions is by venting one’s anger. Honestly, either way – drunkenness or anger – extremely rarely achieves any positive change. When you think about it, honesty seems to be a challenging attitude partly because of those two unseemly ways of expressing it. Perhaps, if we knew how to go about expressing it the right way, we could carry out more effectively Jesus’ call from today’s gospel.
There are three aspects connected with making honesty an attitude that is welcomed by the people you talk to. The first one is the most fundamental and it applies to every other attitude of yours. It’s the motivation behind it. St Paul in today’s second reading makes clear what should be driving our interactions with other people: ‘all the commandments […] are summed up in this single command: love your neighbour as yourself. Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour.’ Love must be at the very centre of my interactions with others. There’s one important quality to that: ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ No more, but no less either. And that leads us to the second crucial aspect of honesty.
We are sufficiently affected by words or actions to be prompted to express our honest opinions. A word of praise in return for a pleasant occurrence, or a variety of feelings arising from an unpleasant one. The latter situation is often difficult to deal with. There are people who are easily upset by just about anything; there are those who are much more tolerant and laid-back. Of course, you must consider whether the cause of your dismay is the other person’s fault or your own over-sensitive reaction. Remember, living among people means accommodating others’ needs as much as your own. Grumpy people usually set very high standards for others, but significantly lower ones for themselves.
The third and final aspect of honesty involves the way we convey our message. As I mentioned earlier, alcohol-fuelled or anger-driven honest conversations never yield positive results. At best, they are forgotten after sobering up. More often they deepen divisions and drive people apart. There’s a better and more effective way and here it is. Firstly, don’t act on an impulse. Arrange for a wee uninterrupted chat. Secondly, consider well your arguments in advance; they work much more effectively than do emotional outbursts. Thirdly, listen to what the person in question has to say and be ready to change your mind. Sometimes our perception can be faulty. There’s nothing shameful about admitting your own mistakes. Last but not least, start the conversation with a clear goal to achieve, but be ready to compromise. Reaching a satisfactory conclusion together is far more effective than forcefully imposing your own solution.
All that sounds like a lot of effort, doesn’t it? But the possibility of a rewarding outcome is worth it. Jesus’ description says it all: ‘If he listens to you, you have won back your brother’. By the way: this applies to women too.
Photo by stevepb