Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 19, 1998
Private and public lives should be in sync
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
The key to remaining within a marriage, a friendship, a neighbourhood, a church, or a religious community, is not so much communication as it is transparency. Nothing destroys community as much as does lack of transparency.
What does this mean? Essentially transparency is a question of being trusted. The most transparent person you know is not necessarily the one who is the most friendly, extroverted, articulate or has the best communication skills. It is the person you trust the most. Transparency is a question of trust and one is worthy of trust when one's private life is in harmony with one's public persona.
Allow me a rather poignant example:
Many of us, I am sure, remember the incident when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was accused of sexually abusing a young man. The accusation was later proven false and the young man who made it confessed that it was a complete fabrication.
However on one particular day in November 1993 Bernardin stood before television cameras, microphones and reporters from all of the world and, given the nature of the accusation, the suspicion was clearly that he was guilty.
I am not sure how many of us still remember the words he spoke then, but they were words that define transparency. Essentially he said this:
"The accusation against me isn't true. I have no idea as to why it is being made or what the motives behind it are, but I can say this: Anyone who knows me, knows that this isn't true. My life is an open book. People who know me know too that I don't do things like that."
"My life is an open book!" If we can say that to our spouses, families and friends, and have them believe us, then we are transparent, irrespective of how stammering and unskilled we might be socially.
The reverse is also true. I can be the most skilled communicator, socially at the centre of things, and the person who has revealed the most about himself, but, if others do not trust my private life, I have no transparency whatsoever. For example, how different the public confession of Bill Clinton ("Even a president has a private life!") than that of Bernardin.
Transparency is about being trusted, being trusted is about being trustworthy and being trustworthy is not a question of explaining ourselves clearly but of living our lives correctly. My life has to be an open book, not that I cannot have a private life, but my private life must be such so that within it there is nothing radically at odds with my public persona.
It is not good enough to have private addictions, affairs and other such betrayals of community as long as these are not found out. These things are equally destructive of community whether they are ever revealed or not. Whenever anyone's private life is out of sync with his or her public persona, the community immediately begins to intuitively feel the contradiction and at that precise moment also beings to die.
Some years ago, on a retreat, a recovering alcoholic shared with me this story: "I'm an electrician. For all the years that I was drinking, I used to be surprised at how naively people trusted me. They gave me keys to go inside their apartments and homes, trusting I would not snoop around or touch anything that I wasn't supposed to. How often I betrayed that!
"Now, since I stopped drinking, they can trust me in their homes. I don't go through their drawers or touch anything that's theirs. That's what sobriety means, being trustworthy. Alcoholism is only 10 per cent about alcohol. It's 90 per cent about honesty - about what you do when nobody sees you, about being trustworthy when someone gives you their keys."
D.H. Lawrence once wrote a poem called Healing. In it he says he is not a machine and that what is wrong with him cannot be fixed by adjusting some mechanism. When something is wrong with us, he says, it is because the soul is sick or wounded and what is then required for healing is never just some skill of communication, but repentance.
The same is true, doubly so, of our relationships with each other. When something goes wrong within our marriages, our families, our friendships, our churches and our communities, it is never just a question of seeking the right counselling, developing the right communications skills, or readjusting the rhythms of our lives to make for greater compatibility, although these can be important.
More important than any of them is transparency. To be in community, I have to be able to stand before the family, and like Bernardin, say: "My life is an open book!" Only if they believe me can they live with me.