Although it is practically impossible for me to choose a favorite Emily poem, one of my top ten would have to be “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant.”
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
I won’t attempt to give an accurate analysis of the words but for me this poem speaks of our finite ability to receive the truth about infinite reality of the divine. I think of the many interactions in scripture that ended with the human being “sorely afraid,” or wanting to hide themselves when confronted by ultimate beauty. I know that I feel vulnerable when in the presence of true goodness.
But sometimes interactions with other people can be frightening too, and not because of benevolence , necessarily. I think that gentleness should be a prerequisite in truth telling to ourselves and others. I have often thought that those who strive to know themselves are much less likely to judge others harshly or want to “get in someone’s face” with their version of the truth. Kindness to others does not negate boundary setting or honesty. But if we are giving someone else some “truth” smugly it is all but guaranteed that we don’t see ourselves correctly and we likely have no clue what that person’s story is.
When I was a young mother, shortly after the birth of my second child, I was struggling. I was having difficulty with weight gain among so many other things. I had to return to work at the Montessori school where I taught shortly after he was born due to financial constraints and I was just miserable about it. I was pumping milk in my car during my breaks and missing my baby painfully.
There was another teacher, whom I’ll call Carmen, who was everything that I was not: wealthy, elegant, thin even after the birth of three children, and oozing with self-confidence. During lunch in the teacher’s break room one day, one of the other teachers said that I looked great after having had a baby so recently. I am sure she was lying, but it was thoughtful anyhow. Carmen, thinking she was doing me a great service in truth telling, immediately piped up and said : “Oh no she doesn’t! She looks terrible!” And she went on to tell me that I needed to lose weight immediately. I wish I were exaggerating. I wish I could tell you that I said something to defend myself. But I just sat there, stunned at the combination of truth and meanness that seemed meant to level me. And they did.
There is a well known saying that one should “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This is a good rule of thumb, I think when interfacing with others. Here are some facts about my situation that might have made Carmen treat me more charitably had she been aware of them. Although I tend to doubt it as it was not the only such interaction I had with her in the years that I taught there.
- I almost died giving birth to my son due to a placenta previa and massive hemorrhaging.
- My son was born premature as a result of those complications in an emergency C-section and the recovery was very slow for both of us.
- I was in the middle of intense post partum depression
- I had a thyroid condition as yet undiagnosed that was contributing to my weight gain
- I was in an abusive marriage and had little support at home.
As I have said previously, not judging folks does not mean that we should not set healthy boundaries against unacceptable behavior. It would (I believe) have been entirely appropriate for me to let Carmen know that her words were unkind and hurtful. And there would have been no need to “tell her what I really think of her” in outrage which is what I often want to do in the face of maliciousness. I could have addressed the behavior without attacking the person. I also could have afterward limited my dealings with her knowing that she was not a safe person for me. I did neither but I do think I would do so now if confronted with the same behavior. At least I hope so.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments in terms of experiences you’ve had with folks “telling you like it is,” in a hurtful way and how you handled it.
In slanted truth,