Today’s guest post looks at the apparent contradiction between being “honest” (with ourselves, about ourselves, and with others) and being loving. Sometimes we have to be true to ourselves and open with the people around us. But is this always what charity demands?
It’s a pretty problem. Your job requires you to see people—lots of people—every day; to talk to them, to work on them, to get them to produce for you. Obviously, you’re going to dress professionally, modestly, etc., etc. But what exactly does “etc.” entail? What if you catch yourself wearing clothes you would never have chosen for yourself, or for a date, or for a party with friends—clothes that you chose specifically in order to make an impression on the people you work with?
It’s not a vanity issue, it’s an honesty issue. When you dress up for the party or the date—or even Mass or dinner with the family—there may be a little prick of vanity in your desire to make a good impression. But at least it’s an honest vanity. You want to look your best. For the job, it’s another matter. You want to look their best, the best version of what they find attractive—and that may not be Who You Are at all.
Let me be repeat: this isn’t about modesty or professionalism. Let’s take it for granted that even if plunging necklines or ripped jeans garner some extra attention from our audience, we don’t indulge them (or ourselves). But what if you’re the original little black dress girl, and you’ve found that clients respond well to bright colors? Or you’re a navy-suit type, and it turns out that your students warm up when you wear tweeds? Should you feel guilty about dressing a part?
If you think this kind of conscience twinge is far-fetched, consider this scenario. There’s a Situation—in your office, in your friend-group, what have you. Philomena and Claudius aren’t speaking, and this really bothers Damien, who’s better friends with Philomena, but really thinks it’s her fault, and doesn’t want to risk jeopardizing the friendship, and so spends all of his efforts trying to get Claudius to apologize, which only irritates Claudius more. Meanwhile, Hieronymus, whose intransigence caused the original quarrel between Philomena and Claudius, comes to you for advice about the Situation, as does Philomena.
If you’re lost in that chain of pride and prejudice, that’s fine. The only significant takeaways here are (1) It’s Complicated, and (2) everybody is (to one degree or another) at fault.
With that given, what do you do when Hieronymus comes complaining? Do you point out that HE DID start it all? Do you remind him of how he steps on everyone’s toes—including yours? Do you point out that the whole Situation might have been avoided if he, Hieronymus, were just a little more [bold, or patient, or hard-working, or polite, or whatever he wasn’t]? Do you? Did you?
I know I did; I know I have; and at those times when I’ve bitten my tongue instead—when I haven’t “been honest” with my confidants—I’ve usually suffered the pangs of conscience afterwards. How could I pretend to tell them how to handle the Situation when I wasn’t being forthright about what I thought of it, and of them? When I didn’t tell the whole truth?
Then the other week another friend needed advice. In her case, it wasn’t about a Situation. She was worried about Dressing a Part, worried that it might be dishonest.
“Look,” I said, after I had listened to her scruples at some length over a suitably soothing beverage. “Look. I really don’t think you need to worry about this. The fact is, you think you’re worried because you’re not being honest with the people you see, because you’re dressing differently for them. Well, fine. You are dressing differently. But it’s not like you’re pretending to be another person; you’re just limiting your appearance in front of them to a part of yourself, maybe to an underdeveloped part of yourself, or a part you don’t use very often. You’re worried that you’re being dishonest, but are you sure that those scruples don’t come from pride or vanity instead?
“Do you really need to tell everyone who you are, or what you think about everything? The impulse to let your audience know the truth about you isn’t about what’s honest, much less about what they need—it’s about what you want. You’re not lying to them by putting on the pink dress. You’re helping them get to where they need to be.”
My friend had started to nod slowly, as if light were gently breaking over the horizon. But it struck me all at once, in a flash—a dose of my own medicine.
Did it really do Hieronymus any good to tell him what I thought about him? Really?
Honestly, I had to admit to myself that it did not. My urge to tell him the truth—the whole truth—was no more an honest scruple than my friend’s concern over her rhetorically effective habiliments. It wasn’t about what was honest, much less about what Hieronymus needed—it was about my need to get my frustration with him off my chest.
It’s a pretty problem, this little dance we all have to do between honesty and charity; and there is no sure-fire way to ensure that you aren’t violating either in your relationships. Perhaps the nearest one can come to a solution is the old method of the saints: turn your gaze outward from yourself.
Gia Demoro is a writer who lives in Virginia.