Handling the truth

By Karen Muensterman

Connecting Faith and Life

My father’s grave is level now and covered with grass; but when it was a fresh wound in the earth, I used to go out and sit with it. Armed with bug spray, I would unroll a beach towel next to the mound of dirt and let memories of Dad swirl around me in the July heat as I tried to make sense of his life and death.

Like most human beings, he was a complicated person. I loved him deeply and unconditionally, but there were things about him that I struggled to understand. Twenty summers later, I am still struggling to understand them. One of the things that I cannot comprehend to this day about my dad is his adamant refusal to accept any truth that personally inconvenienced him. He was absolutely convinced, for example, that smoking cigarettes was harmless. He and my mother both smoked about a pack and a half of cigarettes a day during the years I was growing up, and I took up the habit while I was still in high school. Years later, as more evidence came out about the hazards of smoking, I decided to quit. It took me more than a year of trying and failing, but I finally did it. I remember telling my parents how much better I felt as a non-smoker and encouraging them to try some of the practices that had helped me kick the habit. But my dad continued to insist that smoking did not cause cancer or heart disease and that the Surgeon General and all the doctors were just fear-mongering.

My dad died of a heart attack when he was 63. My mother died of lung cancer five years later. It is possible, of course, that all those years of heavy smoking did not contribute to their early deaths – possible but highly unlikely.

My Dad was a very intelligent man, and usually quite honest. So I ask myself, was he lying when he said he believed that smoking was safe? Or did he somehow convince himself that it was safe because he could not face the challenge of quitting? Or was there some kind of programming in his brain that just kept replaying the same old faulty patterns no matter how hard the truth tried to break in?

There are a lot of beautiful Scripture quotes about the power of truth, but not many of them talk about how hard the truth is to accept sometimes. For instance, John 8:32 says, “And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free;” but it doesn’t talk about how many sacrifices have to be made for the sake of truth, or how many old ingrained patterns have to be painfully broken. Freedom is such a beautiful word, but getting free from one’s past is never easy. It’s always hard to admit to being wrong, but sometimes it’s even harder to admit that people we loved and admired were wrong.

When I look around myself in the summer of 2020, I see a lot of anguish and strife. Part of it has been caused by a virus, but I think a lot of the pain we are experiencing as a country is the pain that comes from accepting inconvenient truths – accepting that the heroes of our past were flawed not because they were worthless or evil but because they were human. This does not mean that we love them less or that we lose all respect for them. But it does mean that we have to acknowledge they were wrong about some very important things and that their wrong attitudes and wrong behaviors have harmfully influenced our attitudes and our behaviors.

When we begin to accept that the people we put on pedestals were, in fact, flawed human beings, we feel a deep sense of loss and grief. We can deal with these painful feelings in one of two ways; we can deny the truth and stay trapped in harmful patterns of thinking and behaving, or we can sit patiently with our grief and begin to forgive our heroes and ourselves for being human. Only one of those ways leads to freedom.