We live with two great desires. Beyond our desire for intimacy we also want sincerity. But, like intimacy, this too is rather elusive. It’s not easy to be sincere.
I was reminded of this recently while having a conversation with a friend who’d just become a father. “Now that I have a child,” he told me, “I want to grow up, finally grow up. I’m tired of the way I am, of being bounced around by every fad and politically-correct thing to think, say, or do. I’m sick of not knowing what I really stand for deep down. I have to find a way to move beyond that or I’ll never grow up. But it’s hard. How do I know what’s true within me? How do I really know my own truth?” This man was already in his late thirties, into mid-life, and still unsure of how much of what he said, did, or thought was really coming from his true centre.
I point this out with sympathy. He was longing for sincerity, which he identified with “finally growing up” and was finding that for the most part it was evading him. He was struggling to contact his own soul, to think his own thoughts, and was finding more false layers there than he’d ever imagined. He was discovering, in the words of Iris Murdoch, that it’s not easy to get out of a muddle. Much as the desire for sincerity haunts us, it’s still difficult to be sincere. Why?
Because too many things get between us and our real centre. What things? The mind-set of our culture, fads, ideology, group-think, rationalizations, old wounds, present hurts, body chemistry, infatuations, private fantasies, among other things, help block us off from our real thoughts and feelings. Who, for example, really has his or her own opinion on Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of Christ? What do we really think about this movie? Did we, liberals and conservatives alike, really watch this movie or did we watch each other watch it?
What do I really think about anything? What’s me as opposed to some prescribed value, feeling, opinion, bias, or ideology that I’ve drunk in from my circle of friends, family, church, or culture? What does it mean to be sincere?
Dictionaries offer two versions of the root of the word and both interpretations shed light on its 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 transparency of soul”, to not have a coat of anything covering over you.
Certainly both are true. To be sincere is to be uncorrupted. To be sincere is also to be bare, uncoated, transparent, truly yourself, not covered with pretence, whim, fad, political correctness, posturing, or acting out. To be sincere is to be without false props, without a mask, without anything that’s not really you.
But this isn’t easy. Parker Palmer, the renowned American Educator, once commented that while he was doing his 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 at one level. 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.
A generation earlier, C.S. Lewis made a similar statement. In his book, 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 takes its base in 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.”
Sincerity is what truly lays bare the heart, genuinely speaks for the soul, and makes for honest curiosity. My friend was right to identify it with the struggle to “finally grow up”.