To Engage, or Not to Engage?
Thomas Merton said that the first thing the contemplative must learn is to mind his own business. Would the world, in general, be a better or a worse place if more people minded their own business? How do we know when we should speak out about something, and when we should mind our own business?
In the next few paragraphs I will be referring to the word “truth” a lot. Here I am speaking of knowledge we may have about something that we are confident someone else may need to have as well. This knowledge may be of a spiritual nature (like knowledge about how to live well, live in peace, or to find virtue, etc.), a physical nature (like how to best manage one’s health or stay out of danger), an emotional nature (like how to keep from being hurt, left alone, or from making a decision that will have painful consequences), or a mental nature (like what is the path of wisdom, what is the right way of thinking, etc.). For my purposes here I am not arguing whether or not the person who claims to possess truth actually does, I only wish to look at how a person can know when to share and when not to.
I propose the following five considerations.
1. Truth should only be shared with those who wish to hear it. This includes religious truth that we believe has a bearing on someone’s temporal and eternal destiny. There is no reason to force truth on anyone. Those who want to know the truth will receive it when they find it. Those who do not wish to know it will make endless excuses for rejecting it. Jesus painted this picture for us in his parable of the different kinds of soil. Ultimately truth can only be heard when a person is in the place of “receptive readiness.” That place is the soil in which the truth can germinate and grow. Jesus’ parable of pearls before swine is instructive here. He cautioned us not to throw our pearls to pigs. Jesus was not actually referring to some people as pigs, but simply making the point that sometimes people are not in a place where they can appreciate the truth, or even care about our opinion or point of view.
2. Truth should only be shared when we have earned the right to be heard. Truth is often difficult to hear and difficult to align our lives with, therefore who it comes from is critical. Only those in our lives who have demonstrated love and good intentions for us have earned the right to be heard.
3. Truth should only be shared with those with a track record of listening. Past behavior predicts future behavior and those who have not listened in the past will almost certainly not listen in the future. Speaking louder, using more forceful words, making threats — all of these will do nothing to bend the ear of those who would not listen when we were whispering.
4. Truth should be shared with compassion for the many difficulties it may pose for the hearer. Therefore we should not share truth when we are aware of simply wanting to “straighten out” the one we wish to share with. This is where we do well to heed Merton’s advice and mind our own business. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. was successful not only because his message was true, but because of who he was, because of the time in which he lived, and for one other great reason, which will be my last point.
5. Truth should be shared only when we are ready to pay the price it may demand. Thinking you need to tell a family member they are an alcoholic? Love may demand that you do so, but be prepared to pay the price. Do you think your next door neighbor needs to know God lives and loves him and that he is not alone in the world? It may cost you something for speaking up. Are you ready to pay that price? One of the main reasons Martin Luther King Jr. was ultimately successful in proclaiming the truth is because he was willing to shed his blood if the truth demanded it.
Some people say that because truth is reality, we should just go around proclaiming it to whoever, whenever, and however. This is unwise. The path of wisdom is to be judicious in how, whether, and when we share truth with others. I have presented five considerations.
Have I missed anything? Perhaps that the greatest wisdom of all is in knowing whether what we have to share is actually truth, or simply strong opinion. But that’s for another post.