"On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everyone wants to be absolutely right himself or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong, in turn, convinced that they are right … "
--From Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation
A friend sent me the above quote this week. It reminded me of an incident in high school, which I wrote about for Campus Life magazine some years ago. For your amusement, here's a bit of the story I wrote:
In high school, I was always right. At least, that's how I saw myself. I was a good debater, and I loved to argue. I'd pick verbal fights with other students, with teachers and my parents. I even started a debate club at my high school just so I could participate in organized arguments. It never mattered what the topic was, or whether I was arguing for or against something. I just wanted to be right. I just wanted to win.
Mr. Tennant wanted to teach me a lesson. He taught government, which was my favorite class because we spent most of the time debating. Each week, he'd assign a debate topic to two students. Each week, I'd volunteer to debate. And every time I got to debate, I'd win.
One week, Mr. Tennant didn't ask for volunteers. "Holly and Tom, you're up. You'll debate on the right to free speech. Tom, you'll speak in favor of free speech. Holly, you're con."
As we began to debate, it quickly became clear that my arguments sounded way better than Tom's. Sounded. I knew I was twisting the truth and saying things that were just plain wrong. But what did it matter? My classmates were nodding their heads in agreement with me. I was going to win!
Then suddenly, Mr. Tennant stopped the debate. He proceeded to tell the class how wrong I was. I was furious. After class, I stomped up to Mr. Tennant's desk. "Why did you stop me? I should have won! I deserved to win!"
My teacher looked me in the eye and said something I'll never forget: "Yes, you did deserve to win, Holly. But I needed to show you there's a difference between convincing others you're right, and speaking the truth. You have a big voice. The question is: How are you going to use that voice?"
As I listened to his words, I felt a flood of mixed emotions. I still felt cheated of my victory. And it still seemed terribly unfair at that moment. But I knew my teacher was "speaking the truth."
I've been thinking about Thomas Merton's quote and my experience in that high-school classroom debate. These days, I don't concern myself with being absolutely right. I've come to realize there's a lot I don't know, much I haven't personally experienced, and some things I'll never understand. That realization has a fear attached: What if I'm absolutely wrong?
It's a pretty big fear, especially when people tell me they expect me to be right. As a journalist, I've long been expected to know a lot about current events and to fully check the accuracy of my sources, data, and quotes. As a Christian who writes about the church, there are expectations that I should write honestly and critically, as well as with a gentleness that reflects God's love. I think my fears about writing are a microcosm of what every Christian experiences in living a Christ-centered life: How can I explain my faith to my friends without appearing superior or hypocritical? What if I misquote the Bible or get the context of a verse wrong? Does God want me to speak out, or does he want me to keep my trap shut?
And, as we've all experienced, when we share our thoughts, opinions and critiques about anything, there will always be plenty of people who don't agree. That fear has stopped me from sharing my faith a few times. I feel that fear creeping up almost every time I write on this blog.
Wonderfully enough, my friend also sent me this quote from Thomas Merton:
"If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn. ... If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men--you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead."
Together, these two quotes provide me with a couple simple truths: 1) God can use my voice, but only if 2) I can keep focused on him--not on myself or other people.
Please pray for me this week as I'm reflecting on Paul's words to Timothy:
"So I ask you to make full use of the gift that God gave you when I placed my hands on you. Use it well. God's Spirit doesn't make cowards out of us. The Spirit gives us power, love, and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:6-7, CEV).
1) Do you struggle with wanting to be absolutely right? Is it difficult to listen to other people's thoughts and opinions? Do you sometimes stop friends and family members before you've heard them out?
2) Do you often fear you're absolutely wrong? Do you sometimes tell people you agree with them just to avoid conflict? Are you afraid to share your beliefs due to this fear?