Together, Yet Alone

A friend asked me on the phone yesterday, “How honest should we be with people?” In the past, my answer may have probably stopped at “it depends on who you’re talking to”. But this time, his question touched on a deeper theme that I’ve been learning a great deal about recently. And the theme is togetherness.

There is a false form of honesty that suggests that nothing should remain hidden and that everything should be said, expressed and communicated. This honesty can be very harmful, and if it does not harm, it at least makes the relationship flat, superficial, empty and often very boring. When we try to shake off our loneliness by creating a milieu without limiting boundaries, we may become entangled in a stagnating closeness… Just as words lose their power when they are not born out of silence, so openness loses its meaning when there is no ability to be closed. – Henri J. M. Nouwen (Reaching Out, 1975)

Not everyone prizes honesty and transparency in communication. But regardless of whether they do, many people (including myself) have a poor understanding of what it means to be honest and transparent.

Is the person who feels compelled to confess something he’s done always being honest? Is it still honesty when we reveal something to assuage our own guilt and shift the burden and pain to someone else? Or is that a selfish act masquerading as ‘honesty’?

Is the parent/spouse/friend who demands complete honesty as a ‘right’ really valuing transparency? Or could that sometimes be a camouflaged form of possesiveness doing harm in the guise of righteousness?

“Openness loses its meaning when there is no ability to be closed.” If I share confidentialities only because it makes me feel good about myself or about my relationship, or because I feel compelled internally to do so, my confidentialities lose their weight. If I am compelled by another person to share beyond what I am ready or willing to share, my confidentialities become hollow. In both, my openness loses meaning.

Honesty and transparency are important in relationships, but only if we understand what they really are. And we can only come to understand what it means to be open when we are first honest with ourselves and confront our own motivations for openness or our expectation of openness from others.

There is a delicate boundary between the sacred space we guard as our own, and the space we ought to share with others. Treading past that line in either direction is less than ideal. Learning to dance on that line is a neverending but joyous journey.

…it is my growing conviction that my life belongs to others just as much as it belongs to myself and that what is experienced as most unique often proves to be the most solidly embedded in the common condition of being human. – Nouwen

I share that conviction. But what does it mean to have my life belong to myself, and to others? I have an inkling that this is another necessary paradox; that as I learn to own my life, I also learn how to belong to others, and that it is in learning to belong to others that I gain a deeper understanding about belonging to myself.

In the midst of a turbulent, often chaotic, life we are called to reach out, with courageous honesty to our innermost self, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to God. To do that, however, we have to face and explore directly our inner restlessness, our mixed feelings toward others and our deep-seated suspicions about the absence of God. – Nouwen

The words that are spoken from a heart that has learned to be silent carry the most power to heal and inspire. Openness and communion between two people become the most precious when they come from two hearts that have learned to be alone. And the more intimate the relationship, the more important it is for us to learn what it means to be together, yet alone.

Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone.
Even as strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music.

Stand together yet not too near together
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
and the oak tree and the cypress
grow not in each other’s shadow.

– Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet, 1951)


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