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Concerning Candor

March 23rd, 2023 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

A few readers, responding to the recent PR style essay, have asked what I meant when I referred to adopting a posture of candor as opposed to postures of aggressive belligerence or a kind of apologetic suppliance.

The difficulty with answering this question is that I think candor is something qualitatively different from either of those wrong approaches.

Imagine you’re in a situation with someone who is saying something that seems wrong to you or perhaps you’re being pressed about your own beliefs on a subject by someone who seems to be relatively hostile. In that moment, I think you can say to yourself, in a manner of speaking, “I am consciously choosing to be aggressive and to own the lib,” or “I am consciously choosing to people please and not give offense.” And then there will be certain words or behaviors you adopt in response to that choice.

I don’t think candor works in quite the same way, which is why it’s hard for me to tell someone, “yes, go read this book and it will explain what I’m talking about with being ‘candid.'” (Though if you pressed me, I’d probably give you Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter or maybe A Place on Earth) I don’t think the kind of candor I’m after is chiefly about a set of behaviors you can adopt by making one-off choices. It’s more generalized than that. You don’t ask toddlers to drive cars. It is for the same reason that you do not ask someone who lacks a healthy interior life and steady faith in divine care to practice candor. Candor flows out of character, in other words, and so it is not something that can simply be conjured up when you need it; it has to be who you are. Candor is the public posture of a person whose inner life is well ordered and who is grounded in their sure confidence in the love of God.

The point, then, is that if you are aggressive and belligerent or you are plaintive and suppliant, I don’t think you can simply be taught behaviors that will fix that. Both of these postures are functions of spiritual immaturity. So you can’t simply fix them through some kind of behavioral technique. It’s not that simple. My wife is a great admirer of the British educator Charlotte Mason. Supposedly an aspiring teacher once showed up at Mason’s school and said to her, “I have come to learn how to teach.” Mason looked at her, paused, and then said, “No, you have come to learn how to live.” That is the challenge here.

If you are a Christian media producer or someone possessing a platform of any size and you want to learn how to respond to criticism, you don’t start by saying “how do I carry myself when I’m giving a podcast interview or being swarmed by a Twitter mob or speaking at a conference?” You have to start more basic than that. Being able to do those things well (in the moral sense) is only possible if you have cultivated what a friend of mine once called a “sabbath of the soul.” If you have, in the quiet hours of your life and especially in the darkest, most fearful moments in your life, learned to offer yourself to God and trust yourself to his care, then you take that learned trust with you into your encounters with others, whatever those encounters might end up being.

It is only with that foundation, I think, that a Christian writer or speaker can avoid the more diseased postures of belligerence or suppliance that I have been trying to diagnose in these pages for many months now.

Wendell Berry has written quite beautifully about candor. Most notably, he has done this in his fiction and, in particular, through two of my favorite characters in his corpus: Mat Feltner and Mattie Chatham. Feltner’s candor is more implicit, Mattie’s is described more explicitly. But you can see it in both of them. Here is how Berry writes of Mattie, in the voice of Jayber, in Jayber Crow:

I knew Mattie Chatham a long time, and I never knew her to falsify or misrepresent herself. Whatever she gave you—a look, a question, an answer—was honest. She didn’t tell you everything she knew or thought. She never made reference even by silence to anything she suffered. But in herself she was present. She was present in her dealings with other people. She was right there.

Later, he writes,

It was a great pleasure to me to watch Mattie and the children (at Vacation Bible School). She was guiding their play and playing with them, not being very insistent about anything, and they all were having a good time. I knew well the work and worry she had pending at home, and yet in that moment she was as free with the children as if she had been a child herself—as free as a child, but with a generosity and watchfulness that were anything but childish. She was just perfectly there with them in her pleasure.

When I call for candor, I am calling for presence. And when I call for presence I am borrowing from Pieper in order to say that presence presupposes sincerity in the encounter, presupposes that you truly are interested in and available to the person before you, free from ulterior motives. This doesn’t mean you must make the totality of yourself available to everyone, to be sure. But it means that when you encounter another person bearing the image of God you allow yourself to be seen by them as a person, not a disembodied ideology machine, and that you see them as a person in the same way, and, perhaps most of all, that you are open to being changed in some way by this encounter and to them being changed by it as well.

This is not a naive thing I am calling people to. There are people with whom you should be very careful, people with whom you not only do not tell them everything, but actually tell them very little. Candor is not foolishness. But you must never falsify yourself or allow yourself to be manipulated into a falsification out of some sinful desire to either antagonize or placate the person before you through the exaggeration or concealment of some truth. Candor is a forthright offering of yourself wed to a refusal to engage in falsehoods. It is not something one comes to simply through one act of the will. It is, rather, the byproduct of a daily offering up of yourself to God and a glad reception of whatever he gives you.

It is, to be sure, a uniquely difficult thing in our day, when it often feels as if our entire sense of self is one grand performance. Advertising culture and social media culture all militate quite aggressively against this idea of candor. That, of course, is why I think you would do well to get off social media and aspire to obscurity. Even so, ultimately it is not abstention from public life that will produce candor in you, but only a work of God’s spirit moving in you as you offer yourself to him.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).