To Be Honest: Why It’s Hard (but Helpful) to Tell the Truth

“Before you print a poem, you should reflect on whether this verse could be of […]

Sam Bush / 8.14.19

“Before you print a poem, you should reflect on whether this verse could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with himself and with the world.”

– Czeslaw Milosz

Being honest is often a hard thing for me to do. I don’t actually mind it when someone prefaces their opinion with, “Well, to be honest….” Whereas some people will say, “What do you mean? Aren’t you honest all the time?” I just don’t think that someone being genuine, I mean truly honest, is something to take for granted. As a people pleaser, it’s usually more important to me to be liked than to be honest. As a romantic, I would rather live in an ideological world than live in the real one and I’m willing to sacrifice anything (the truth included) in order to meet my own needs. Alas, this tendency to put appearance over what is true does a tremendous disservice to the people around me. People crave honesty. After all, the truth shall set us free. But, I’m sorry to say that more often than not I just “can’t handle the truth” (or at least I don’t want to). It’s too painful. It’s only when people are presented as Czeslaw Milosz sees them – struggling with themselves and with the world – that I realize that honesty is the only thing that one can do to help oneself or someone else.

Czeslaw Milosz’s words are particularly striking in this age where one’s thoughts aren’t shared so much as launched into the faceless abyss of the internet. The internet makes it much easier to hide behind ideology (i.e. the way things should be rather than the way things actually are) because you’re not actually face to face with other people. When sharing one’s thoughts, it’s sometimes hard to realize that there are real, breathing, hurting people on the other end of the line. And yet, whether a thought is at all effective depends on the author’s ability to picture “at least one person in the struggle with himself and with the world.”

This is where a low anthropology comes in handy, the fact that “everybody hurts,” the fact that every person is almost always struggling. It is also one of the many reasons scripture is so efficacious no matter who is reading it. God sees us, not as an audience to win over or as a following to build, but as men and women who are struggling with ourselves and with the world. God’s Word is the opposite of ideology. It speaks the truth rather than what we wished were true. And I can’t handle it, but God can.

When reading Milosz’s words, a quote from a different kind of poet came to mind. Guy Clark was an accomplished songwriter and was a mentor to other great songwriters like Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. The New York Times crowned him “king of the Texas troubadours.” While his songs were never #1 hits, they meant a great deal to a lot of people. What made them so effective? Well, when being interviewed on the process of his own songwriting, Guy Clark had this to say:

Most of the really good songs are dead true. You couldn’t make up ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train,’ or any of that stuff. It had to have happened to have the song be there. Every time I’ve tried to make stuff up it just kind of falls flat. So the majority of my work is something that happened to me, I saw happen to someone else, or a friend of mind told me happened. There is a certain amount of theatrical and poetic license. People are supposed to like it, that’s why you’re doing it. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not brain surgery, it’s heart surgery. They’re just songs.

What a humble approach to talking about one’s creative process (“They’re just songs!”). But something else is going on beneath the surface in these songs, because Guy Clark was able to reflect on whether they could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with himself and with the world (even if that person was him). If you’ve listened to his songs, you’ll know that he doesn’t use lofty words. He just tells it like it is. He’s got two feet on the ground and he’s speaking directly to you. This is how Paul speaks to you in 1 Corinthians, not with eloquence or human wisdom, but by speaking the truth of Jesus Christ and him crucified (he could have tried to make stuff up but it would have just fallen flat). And this is how Jesus speaks to you today, you who are struggling with yourself and with the world. Why? So that in Him you may have peace. Jesus knows that in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! He has overcome the world (John 16:33).

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One response to “To Be Honest: Why It’s Hard (but Helpful) to Tell the Truth”

  1. Ken says:

    Thanks, Sam. Milosz’s honesty and realism are some of the qualities I love most in his poetry – his honesty and his realism, and also his tenderness towards the people he remembers from his youth.

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