Yes, speak the truth. And, love people well.
Love doesn't always feel good and truth is rarely easy, but choosing the difficult path is still our responsibility.
“Miriam, do you realize you look like you hate your life?”
As much as those words stung, I’m deeply grateful they were spoken; as much as I didn’t want to believe them, they were decidedly true.
It was my first week of chapter visits, the part of our State FFA Officer year where my teammates and I would split up and visit schools in one area at a time, presenting several workshops a day to different agriculture classes. My mind was entirely occupied with remembering exactly what words to say, worrying about how long each activity would take, and trying to impress the teachers. It wasn’t until after the second full day of workshops that the section president traveling with me, Daniel, called me out.
Here’s the deal: I can be pretty sensitive. When someone says something to me that hurts, even if it’s true, my immediate reaction is defensiveness. I question that person’s loyalty and love for me. “If they don’t like my idea, then they probably hate me and wish we weren’t friends and want me to fail and, and, and…” my mind jumps to conclusions.
Daniel taught me that speaking the truth from a place of love doesn’t always feel good. In some cases, if it does, it’s probably either not truthful or not loving. On the long drive back after our last classroom visit for the afternoon, he asked if I was having fun. “I don’t know, does it not look like I’m having fun?” I dodged his question. That’s when his blunt words came out. “Miriam, do you realize you look like you hate your life in every chapter visit?” Several miles of central Illinois cornfields flew past before I could respond, and when I did find some words to say, out came a weak excuse about how “that’s just the way my face is.” Daniel knew that wasn’t true. So did I.
I was taking everything too seriously. I forgot that above a perfect direction set for an activity or a dazzling self-introduction, my job in these visits was to genuinely enjoy the time I spent with students. I was too caught up in myself to notice how I could better love the people around me, yet Daniel loved me (and them) enough to speak that truth. He risked losing my friendship. I wasn’t happy with him, then. Now? I realize that without his blatantly honest feedback, I likely would have spent the next five weeks of chapter visits missing the most important thing: the genuine joy that comes from the chance to love people in a very ordinary, yet meaningful, way.
Growing up, I would hear the phrase “speak the truth in love” over and over. It’s now become the basis for how I seek to live my life; I want to leave a legacy of speaking the truth (at least as I see it, for that’s the best any of us can do) and loving people well. It is far more difficult than it appears. Just as I lashed out at Daniel for speaking truth to me, I have been on the receiving end, being deeply misunderstood for taking actions that I believed to be aligned with both truth and love. I have watched friends lose friends and others take sides, shortsightedly believing that any painful words are untruthful ones.
It’s nuanced and it’s hard, really hard, to navigate the landscape of both truth and love. I’m actively working on it and I have much to learn. Here’s two things that are helping me in this pursuit, whether I’m on the giving or receiving end of the words:
1) Does it hurt because it’s true or does it hurt because it’s false?
I was hurt by Daniel’s words because they were true, and I knew it; I just didn’t want to admit it. If someone seeks to speak truth to us and we don’t like it because it’s spot on, that’s on us, not them. For those of us in a position of speaking the truth as we see it, we had better make sure we’re genuinely speaking truth from our perspective. Daniel didn’t tell me I hated my life; we don't have the authority to tell someone else what they feel. Instead, he told me what he saw: to him, and many others, that’s what it looked like. If we speak the truth exactly as we see it, with humility, we’re much less likely to be misunderstood.
2) What’s the intent?
I knew Daniel said what he said because he cared about me and the opportunity I had to influence others; his intentions were from a desire to show love, albeit tough love, to people. When we are hurt by another’s words, whether they are true or false, we must be willing to rise to the occasion by seeking to understand their intentions. To judge others for their actions but ourselves for our intentions shows a lack of maturity and self-awareness; it’s abdicating our responsibility as servant leaders. Often, I think we will find that people’s intentions are good. Still, if they don’t appear to be coming from a place of love, our best course of action is still to show the person respect but to simply move on. If we’re giving feedback, we must be careful not to speak from a place of our own insecurity or jealousy. We do not lift ourselves by tearing down others.
Both speaking truth and loving well are much easier said than done, but that’s no excuse to not strive in their direction. Hate and lies (even well-intended lies) lessen our potential for good. Truth and love (especially tough love) speak to the greatest potential that we have to offer to one another. Speaking the truth and loving well both require courage, vulnerability, and grace; we have yet to find a good reason not to call those out in ourselves.
How will you speak the truth in love this week? Share your ideas in the comments or on social media by tagging @miriamrosah and @nffaevp and using the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.