“Quid veritas est?” Pilate famously asked Jesus. Yet, the problem with the question is that is presupposes, by virtue of its grammatical structure, that truth is singular, is one thing. In fact, there are many truths and degrees of truth. The continuum of veracity goes largely unrecognized today. And while I’m not particularly interested in debating the existence of absolute truth in this post, something Pilate was ostensibly concerned with examining, I am, however, extraordinarily interested in reflecting on the nature of our respective engagements with the truth of our experience. While seemingly subjective and therefore suspicious by the standards of some, I ask that you give me a chance to explain myself before you rush to judgement. Something which, as I hope to illustrate below, happens far too often by far too many.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot by two of my favorite authors. Thomas Merton, as many of you will not be surprised to see mentioned, is one of my perennial influences. I cannot help but be drawn into his life and work. I have and continue to work with his writings and thought in a scholarly setting, but I also turn to him for personal reasons and inspiration. It is not unlike the professional or academic mentorship shared between so many students and apprentices and professors and masters — there is a camaraderie and affection that forms the foundation of relational connection, while a guidance and instruction that marks a professional distinction. Much of my published work on Merton is of the latter variety, where I am his student who learns from his work and studies it anew. But there are times when, on a more personal level, I go deep into his journals and correspondence to relate in another way.
The second author is the acclaimed contemporary novelist Jonathan Franzen. I admit up front that it is entirely uncool to mention such a popular author by name in a setting like this, but regardless of your initial opinion of Franzen, he is a talented and reflective writer who does indeed deserve credit for his craft. My relationship to the writing of Franzen is much more casual, not being a literary critic or one particularly concerned with the mechanism or art of creative fiction. Nevertheless, I find myself oddly fascinated with the personality and the products of this author. This interest has led me to pick up Franzen’s recently published collection of essays, Farther Away (2012), a rather eclectic grouping of pieces that have been previously published elsewhere. Because of the rather autobiographical (an adjective that, admittedly, makes Franzen uneasy) character of some of the pieces included (a particular lecture, a commencement address, reflections on the death of a friend, etc.) provides an interesting perspective into his life.
Both of these writers — Merton and Franzen — are often considered arrogant. What’s curious about the indictment of arrogance, egocentrism, self-aggrandizement, or whatever transgressive disposition you prefer to use, in the case of these two men is that they both, in their own ways and contexts, acknowledge this predilection. They respectively recognize the perception that they are frequently viewed as arrogant, while at different points and to varying degrees revealing a keen self-awareness that they are, in fact, at times arrogant.
But I believe the arrogance that is ostensibly presented as a prosopon of public perception has more to do with a certain awareness of the veracity of one’s experience over against the specter of insecurity that haunts most people. This is what they share in common and what unites them in my reflection here. One of the consequences of human finitude (original sin?), that we all must engage, is the fear of embracing who it is we really are. This identity is laden with positive attributes and challenging weaknesses, but it is what it is, and it is who we are.
People who, through a variety of modes — music, writing, public speaking, art, dance, and the like — come to see themselves in the mirror of experience, for better and worse, tend to come off as threatening to those who have not yet engaged in that difficult struggle, or who are not yet as far along. The journey of creative self-discovery, a concomitant spiritual pilgrimage I might suggest, is not governed by chronological time or physical space as we might presume. One might live his or her whole life too fearful to explore his or her true self with the honesty such a journey requires, and leave this world unsure of the veracity of his or her own experience. While, conversely, a young adult might find the Spirit’s gift of fortitude enough to take a chance to begin to embrace who it is he or she is in this world, and do something about it.
In reading some of Franzen’s latest reflections, I am reminded of Merton’s own public and private writings. I am reminded of the perception so many have of the young and then not-so-young Thomas Merton. I recall how some of his fellow monks, likely out of envy, detested the author for what might be considered literary or some other “success.” I remember that Merton himself reflected on his own awareness of what he was very good at as well as those things that were, as St. Paul might describe, proverbial thorns in his flesh — the inadequacies and challenges of his life. There were times, Merton admits, when he was genuinely prideful, and recognizing those moments, he opened a space for humility to emerge. But most of the time, the self-confidence that arose from his ability to own the truth of his experience, to see the world as clearly as he was able, was mistaken for arrogance by others.
I think something similar may be true with Franzen. I am struck by a very complicated reaction that is elicited by his personal disclosure about his craft, his history and the future. My reaction is a mixture of admiration and disgust. The admiration comes from the realization, as with Merton, that Franzen has a very good sense of himself and owns the truth of his experience. The disgust comes from my insecurity in light of that perception, an honest realization that I still have so far to go in my own ownership of experiential truth.
This is not suggest that I haven’t had, and won’t continue to have, my own experiences of being on the receiving end of what comes from experiential veracity mistaken for arrogance. I am neither Merton nor Franzen, and will certainly never be either of them, but what I do and say has been met at times by an accusation of arrogance not unlike what each of these folks have previously experienced. That said, there are times when, like Merton readily confesses in his journals and letters (and my close friends occasionally remind me), I can be prideful, but those moments are fleeting for self-criticism is far more ready at hand than an a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back.
The reality is, I believe, that fear is not what governs my life journey — at least, I try my best not to let it govern my journey. While Pilate asks “What is truth?” in John’s Gospel, Matthew’s account presents the resurrected Jesus telling the cowering disciples — telling us — “Do not be afraid!” Everyday I see far too many people living a life governed by fear and it is usually those most afraid who have to find fault in the truth of another’s experience. It becomes uncomfortable for those who are overwhelmed by insecurity and governed by fear to see someone embrace their gifts and weaknesses, and then do something with their gifts despite their weaknesses!
This is too often the case with the world and church today. Fear is at the heart of so much inaction and injustice by omission, while criticism of others’ good work and effort is all too abundant. The failure of people to face the task of embracing their gifts and weaknesses serves to paralyze them so that, in order to distract themselves from their own life struggles, they feel obliged to critique those who live in such a way as to reflect the veracity of their experiences, telling the stories of their lives to others in manifold form.
One should not confuse this reflection for an endorsement of prideful behavior, but instead recognize a call to reflect on what motivates and elicits accusations of arrogance and the dismissal of others so quickly. Might the impetus be my own discomfort with the self-confidence of another that makes me uncomfortable because of my fear or insecurity? Or is it rooted in the realization that there is something amiss in what is actually being expressed or conveyed?
May we come to better recognize the veracity of others’ experiences and affirm the gifts and forgive the weaknesses of others as we seek to better know ourselves and share with the world the truth of our lives. And me we do all of this in love and peace.