Whatsoever Things Are True

    Writer and alumna Aritha van Herk on telling hard truths

    By Aritha van Herk, ’76 BA, ’78 MA on December 5, 2011

    Telling Hard Truths

    “The Hard Truth” is one of those phrases decorating the front of nasty news like a shield. Hard truths accompany tough times, disappointment, economic recession, belt-tightening and pain.

    The notion that being candid necessarily inflicts pain is an old one. We do not always relish the truths that we encounter. We don’t want to be told that our body’s emanations are offensive. We don’t want to hear that the investment broker we trusted so much has lost our money. We don’t want to get the news that we have a fatal disease.

    Being the bearer of such truths can be as uncomfortable as being the person confronted with them. Those who dispense “hard truths” face the challenge of communicating information deeply upsetting or personally insulting. Can the truth be merciful or must it be brutal?

    While facing disagreeable truth is painful, it can also lead to an enlightenment that lifts rather than burdens those affected.

    There lies the challenge: how “hard truths” are conveyed has much to do with how they are received. Stating the truth requires courage; candor cannot subsist on deference. But bleak truths revealed gracefully fare better than unvarnished dispensations.

    Some hard truths speak a reality terrible but unavoidable: a cancer diagnosis, or news of the unexpected death of a loved one. More subtle relations are required when elderly parents must be told that they can no longer adequately care for themselves, or when it becomes necessary to take their car keys away because they should no longer drive.

    Another kind of hard truth is one that we persuade ourselves needs to be said, but that will not necessarily meet a receptive ear—a trickier proposition. Is it useful to inform a person that you don’t want to have anything to do with her? Is it important to declare one’s antipathy to a colleague’s perfume? Is it productive to tell your hated brother-in-law that he is an unwanted guest? Or are these cases where a soupçon of finesse, good manners and discretion can work better than rank honesty?

    Against all evidence, we believe in the much-touted notion that nobody wants to injure others; but this meek commonplace is no longer true. In a world of instant opinion, knee-jerk reaction and anonymous snark (with apologies to Lewis Carroll’s innocent fictional animal), hurting other people is now accepted, even applauded behavior.

    Snarkenfreude, that combination of snide remark and Schadenfreude (enjoyment of other people’s ill-fortune) thrives on anonymity, the deposit of unspeakable droppings in the comments sections that append the blogosphere. As David Denby said in his 2009 book Snark, snark is a bullying tactic, and as such doesn’t fence for truth so much as front cruelty and cleverness of the vicious kind. It arises from contempt, never a good companion to veracity.

    While facing disagreeable truth is painful, it can also lead to an enlightenment that lifts rather than burdens those affected. This clarity is most likely to result if the speaker approaches the truth with the sensitivity and courtesy that its affliction demands. The biggest challenge is getting others to recognize the truth in their own time and context.

    The key is invariably respect. Words can pack more wallop than a fist. So instead of coldly announcing a “hard truth,” it is markedly better to address an issue first, listen for feedback second, and then focus on obdurate factuality.

    Emily Dickinson said, most memorably:

    Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—

    Success in Circuit lies

    Too bright for our infirm Delight

    The Truth’s superb surprise

    As Lightning to the Children eased

    With explanation kind

    The Truth must dazzle gradually

    Or every man be blind—

    Lest we blind those whose vision we wish to correct, we must be careful with the truth, for it is, indeed, both bright and dangerous. 

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    Writer and professor Aritha van Herk, ’76 BA, ’78 MA, lives in Calgary and has a habit of direct and imaginative speech. She was recently inducted as a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence, the province’s highest honour.