We are all haunted by two great desires, beyond the desire for intimacy. We long for innocence and long for sincerity.
But they, like intimacy, are highly elusive. It is not easy to be innocent and sincere.
I was reminded of this recently while having a conversation with a friend of mine, an ex-seminarian, now married, who just became a father. “Now that I have a child,” he told me, “I want to grow up, finally grow up! I am sick of the way I am, of being bounced around by every whim and fad and politically correct thing to think or say or do.
“I am sick of not knowing what I really, deep down, myself, believe in and stand for. I have to find a way to move beyond all that or I’ll never grow up! But it’s difficult! How do we know what is really most true within us? How do we touch that?”
The man saying these words was in his late thirties, already into middle age, and still unsure of how much of what he said, did and thought were really coming from his true centre.
I point this out with sympathy. This man was longing for sincerity, which he identified with “finally growing up” and was finding that it was, for the most part, evading him.
He was struggling to contact his own soul, to touch his own heart, to think his own thoughts, and was finding more false layers and pretence there than he had ever imagined. He was discovering, in the words of Iris Murdoch, that it is not easy to get out of a muddle.
Much as the desire for sincerity haunts us, it is very difficult to be sincere. Why? Because too many things get between ourselves and our true centre. There are almost too many muddles to escape from.
What does it mean to be sincere? Dictionaries offer two versions of the root of the word and both interpretations shed light on its true meaning. Some dictionaries suggest that sincere comes from two Latin words: sine (without) and caries (decay). Hence, to be sincere means to be “without corruption.”
Other commentators suggest that its root is: sine (without) and cero (to smear, to coat with wax). In this view, to be sincere means to be uncovered, to have a certain nakedness of soul, to not have a coat of something smeared on you.
Certainly, both are true.
To be sincere is to be, in mind and heart and soul, uncorrupted. To be sincere is also to be bare, uncoated, naked, truly yourself, not smeared by pretence, whim, fad, political correctness, posturing and acting out. To be sincere is to be without false props, without a mask, without anything that is not really true to you.
But this is a state we rarely achieve.
To offer just one example: Parker Palmer, an American educational philosopher of some distinction, recently commented that while he did a graduate degree in theology at a Christian seminary, despite all the good and sincere people he met there and all the valuable insights that passed through the classrooms, there was little in the way of genuine sincerity. Classrooms themselves, he suggests, almost ex officio, militate against sincerity.
I paraphrase his comments: “During all those years, in all those classes, with all those good people, I doubt that there was ever truly one sincere question asked. There was a lot of posturing, some pretence, a lot of asking of the right things, a lot of political correctness, but not really a question that laid bare a heart, that spoke truly for someone’s soul, that issued forth from a genuine curiosity.”
Nearly a generation before him, another noted educator, C.S. Lewis, made a similar criticism. In his classic, The Great Divorce, Lewis, arguing against a professor of theology who no longer believes in a transcendent God, outlines the anatomy of a lost faith, suggesting that at root it is based upon insincerity: “Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful.
“At college, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s resistance to the loss of faith” (pp. 37-38).
My friend was right to identify the quest for sincerity with the struggle to “finally grow up.” Sincerity is the final resistance to everything that is immature, that blocks us from truly facing ourselves, each other and our God.