“Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant”: Truthspeaking Through Indirection versus Misdirection.

Quick! Think of a story or poem, perhaps even the lyrics of a song or a piece of visual art, that has touched your heart with joy and enlivened your mind; one that has made you ponder eternal principles and truth and inspired you to reach for higher things. Do you have one?

Now bring to mind an example of visual, musical, or literary art that has pricked your conscience and caused you to confront the need to change; one that has held a mirror up before you and helped you to see the truth — the distance between your current state and what you could and should become. Got it?

Holding these two treasured memories in mind, compare them to the last time you were given a bare-knuckled, knock-down-drag-out, clear-as-a-buttonhook-in-the-well-water dressing down from someone who presented you with undiluted industrial strength truth, for your own good. Can you bear to recall it?

As you considered these varied scenarios, which seemed to have the most lasting impact on you? Which ones inspired change and acceptance, which ones invited resistance, and which truths simply washed over you as “too much, too fast”?

For myself, I have numerous examples of inspiring art that I recall with pleasure and joy; hymns that edify, stories and poems that uplift and entertain, and images that entrance and inspire. I have also been graced with firm and clear reminders of my weakness; stories of characters whose fate could be my own, songs that echo my own need for repentance, and heroes of literature whose victory and conquest I hope to emulate and experience in my own life.

“Brutally honest” encounters with truth have also been my lot from time to time. Some of these have been uncomfortable “woodshed” moments, when I have been (sometimes publicly) criticized, critiqued, and corrected. Others have been basic “yes or no” pronouncements that have been “dis-figure-of-speech-ed” and just express the facts in all their straightforward simplicity.

Speaking the truth can occur in a variety of ways, but “Truthspeaking” and “blunt force trauma” do not have to be synonymous. Emily Dickinson expressed this beautifully in the poem we know as, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”:


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 —

Emily Dickinson


Some truths deserve and require clear expression. Jesus taught us, “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matt. 5:37). The Quran teaches, “O believers, fear God, and be among those who are the truthful ones” (al-Tawbah 9:119). The Torah teaches, “Distance yourself from falsehood” (Mishpatim, 23:7.) Integrity and truth include, as they say, calling a spade a spade. But that being said, the method and means of expressing truth is a vital part of the message.

The 1992 film, A Few Good Men, contains this often quoted (and memed) exchange of dialogue: “I want the truth!” / “You can’t handle the truth!” Sometimes, I think this is more accurate than we like to admit. Emily Dickinson wisely suggests that truth be spoken — all the truth — but spoken “slant” instead of straight and at full strength, because it can be “Too bright for our infirm Delight”, and thus “Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind”.

Consider the examples of moving truth that you envisioned at the top of this post. Truth was spoken to uplift and inspire you in the first example, even if not didactically. Truth was present in the second scene as well, even though it was a corrective confrontation. (Did you notice that I presumed that both these memories are treasured ones? They are, aren’t they? Even the self-development one? — I thought so.)

The third experience, though, I was more circumspect in my description. My own experiences of receiving blunt truth from others have been a mixture of good and bad, and I make bold to presume the same is true for you. I have been the recipient of both wise and misguided “truth” from time to time, and have resented both. Too often, it has taken a while for me to humble myself enough to see the wisdom of good counsel when it has been presented as “brutally honest.” The good advice and correction that I receive, I am invariably grateful for (eventually), but as the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

I think that this is why truth is typically best expressed in ways that communicate using symbols and metaphors. As you and I speak truth in our writing of stories or poems or songs or essays, we invite our readers to discover and accept the truth through allegory and metaphor, without “bashing them over the head.” This is why the teaching of religious truths is often done through parables and proverbs. Looking into many religious texts, we find such parables and proverbs in Buddhism, the writings of The Quran, The Torah, and of course the Bible. This is not misdirection, deceiving the reader or hearer and taking them away from truth, but rather an expression of truth through indirect means, adapted to the hearing and perception of the audience. Again, as I’ve said before, we write the half that our audience builds upon, as they supply the other half. Or, as Dickinson says,


As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind.


The explanation of lightning to children, for example, is done in kind and age-specific ways. Thus also, the truths that we express must “dazzle” our readers “gradually”, lest they be “blinded” and unable to accept or act upon them.

As we encounter truth, we often find that, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly;” but as we grow in understanding, we will eventually see “face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The same can be said of our readers. As a Truthspeaker, tell all the truth, but tell it slant. By doing so, you will provide the best of halves and create life-changing reading experiences.






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