In 1759 the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire published his satirical piece Candide. It tells the fantastical journeys of the simple Candide and his tutor Dr Pangloss. The saga commences when he is expelled from the idyllic Westphalia after being discovered in an innocent romantic liaison with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde.
Candide is thrust out into a garishly tragicomic world of suffering armed only with the positivist ideas of Pangloss, with whom he is quickly reunited.
All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.
Voltaire was lampooning Gottfried Leibniz, the Christian mathematician-philosopher whose Théodicée built a theological philosophy coining a similar phrasing. (Voltaire considered Leibniz to be a bit of a preening dabbler, and thus credentialed Pangloss a “professor of meta-physico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology”. That one got me!)
It’s a frolicking tale; one in which the obsolescence of Candide’s outlook must be reckoned with. It cannot hold up under the honest scrutiny of even the simplest, so he is forced to form a truer view of the world.
Honesty is a personal varietal of truth, is it not? But it is elusive because it is both objective and subjective simultaneously. (That you are anxious could be honest, but why? That’s a harder truth to name.)
Like Voltaire, we know optimism falls short of truth. But so too does pessimism. Flattery and gossip, cynicism and naiveté, histrionics and denial all evade, to quote Emily Dickinson, “all the truth.” We know this. We usually know when we’re being dishonest.
But the real problem is why.
The Biblical narrative names the origins of the human malfunction as shame—self-hatred. In its poetic introduction to humanness, we find “in the beginning…”
The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. [Gen. 2:25]
What a wistful sentence.
But once shame infects humanity, we discover its aftereffects: hiddenness, coverage, blame, deception then violence. Shame makes us self-protective beings to our own demise; as individuals and as a race.
And we discover the similitude of honesty to vulnerability, our aversion to which runs so deep that we are loathe event to venture honesty toward self.
What do we forfeit?
The capacity for human closeness; the risk of giving and receiving love.
CS Lewis famously described this in The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken…
The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
What else do we forfeit?
The capacity for growth. Our fingers jab ever outward, blaming the externals for the acerbity that keeps surfacing within us. (“That pothole made me angry!”)
Vincent van Gogh clashed ruthlessly with shame in his life, before succumbing to it . But in a lucid moment he wrote to his brother Theo:
So let us simply go on quietly, each his own way, always following the light ‘sursum corda’2 and as such who know that we are what others are and that others are what we are, and that it is good to have love one to another… And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none…
Our refusal to acknowledge (embrace?) our shortcomings robs us of the opportunity to discover their origins and open ourselves to healing.
And we forfeit at least one more thing.
Simply put. We cannot admit how very lost we are, and lost we remain.
This predicament is perfectly understandable, by the way. As my counselor friend would say, “We come by it honestly.” But it is by also by honesty that we might make our way out; leading others in the process.
Jesus said it best, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth with set you free!” [Jn 8:32] Of course, the antecedent of Jesus’ “then” is that we must learn by doing.
Voltaire’s way of putting this comes by way of Candide’s realization, “I must cultivate my own garden”, viz. it is upon me to live honestly toward the truth.
This was the intended reflection of my post on Monday. We live in a society that prefers fakeness to honesty, where we profane the sacredness of human histories. We do not know how to gild our wounds in honor through patient listening and kind truth-telling.
(How apropos that van Gogh would would sever off his listening ear in a fit of disillusionment with human relationships—on my birthday, no less!)
I am certain that this journey can only take place in the midst of honest community. (Alcoholics Anonymous has known this for decades.) For this reason, Jesus told his listeners to be wary of giving their sacred honesty away; the indiscriminate offering of their pearls (those precious objects forged through turmoil).
It is a shame to have one’s sacred treasures trampled. But it is a greater shame by far to have never had them venerated.
. 1 “hearts lifted”