We have all learned the hard way that email and social media can be tone deaf. It’s difficult to parse sincerity from irony and cynicism. I was reminded recently that this may happen in other forms of writing as well. In notes on a scene in which my characters make ironic reference to Ayn Rand’s John Galt, a friend questioned their sincerity. The scene plays overly pious and even deluded if these characters truly take John Galt as gospel. Ewwww. (How on earth did Rand get away with Galt’s 90-plus-page rant-slash-speech? I mean, really.)
In architecture school, we had a yearly Friday night showing of “The Fountainhead,” during which we hooted and threw popcorn at Howard Roark. What an egotistical windbag. Telling the difference between irony and sincerity is so much easier in person. Or is it? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the spectrum between these two, and what mindset I bring to life’s difficulties. My teenage son keeps telling me I’m hopelessly naïve, which is his way of saying sincerity is uncool. Deeply uncool.
Irony and sarcasm are ways of maintaining separation from the world, of staying armored. You can be a clever commentator on the life around you without actually taking the risk of participating. The tough sledding is when I mean something, when I am being sincere. I can come across as insufferable and even self-righteous. Howard Roark standing on the steel girder, spewing his dictums about individuality and genius, or John Galt taking over the airwaves to worship individuality and the market.
My teenage son cannot tolerate sincerity, even in tiny doses. Sometimes I know it’s his developmental stage, and sometimes I despair that he is being permanently tainted by this culture. In a way, he is (we all are), since our culture is stuck at an adolescent stage of development. Our culture, like my son, hates sincerity. Cynicism is a comfortable armor. I get it. Who doesn’t need some distance from the nonsense that surrounds us?
As adults, we continue to be squirmy around sincerity. The one exception is when children are the source. We can smile indulgently and think how adorable they are. How untainted. We may feel wistful or nostalgic for the simplicity of childhood. Let them enjoy their sheltered lives, before they find out how fucked up the world really is. Honestly, is there any other sane way to meet the world than sarcasm, irony, and cynicism?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think there is. I’m advocating sincerity in its most pure form. The sort of sincerity that we allow good and great people to exhibit without judgment. Who would question the Dalai Lama’s sincerity? Or, Joanna Macy or Paul Hawken or John Glenn or Brene Brown? Sincerity is baked in to the ceremonies that we open Restorying retreats with. In fact, the whole weekend is a sustained experience of sincerity. Something happens when you can spend two days in the absence of judgment and cynicism. The armor melts away. Reconnection is possible. Hearts open. Emotions like delight, joy, awe, and even bliss can arise.
Sincerity is necessary when courting the numinous. Art, poetry, music, writing—all creative pursuits can be used to step into realities untethered by rational thought. That is, when they are not being used to indulge one’s own fantasies about culture, one’s clever, ironic observations, one’s intelligent and sarcastic critiques. I’ve always been impatient with art that insists merely on acting as mirror. Architecture has indulged similarly. (How else would we have gotten such crap during the Deconstructivist ‘80s?) I must be feeling argumentative this morning, because my impatience with this sort of critique-based art feels boundless. Why make art that doesn’t take a stand, that doesn’t hold a lamp to light a possible new path?
You might say, isn’t that what Ayn Rand was doing? Yikes. Maybe so. Her writing comes across as unintentional humor, which is why we architecture students were able to have so much fun with Howard Roark. I will amend my earlier point to say that holding lamps is a tricky business that must be approached in all humility. I would never claim that my lamp and my path are the one way. In fact, I’m more drawn to fiction that deploys multiple lamps and lights multiple paths.
Humor, indeed, is a powerful force that I wish I could wield better as a writer. I’m much more comfortable with it in the moment, during dinner party conversations or improv class. It seems to require a great deal of confidence, letting go, and even relaxation during writing. Storytellers use humor to bypass our usual defenses to land quite profound truths—even disturbing or difficult truths. Humor invites us to make connections that we previously overlooked. The artist, Nina Katchadourian, whose “Sorted Books” projects inspired this post’s illustration, is particularly good at this.
Isabel Allende is a writer who can be sincere without pushing an agenda. Her marvelous book, The House of the Spirits, handles the most serious and difficult subjects—rape, torture, civil unrest and corruption—while never resorting to judgment or preaching. Her realism is spacious enough to contain multiple perspectives, even while she takes a stand. Objective reality dances with magic. Art courts the numinous.
What is behind the urge to laugh or sneer at ceremonies, rituals, sacred circle dance, or drum circles? These activities strike many of us as quaint and ineffectual when measured against the world’s problems. Worse, they may be seen as the self-centered, self-indulgent nonsense of hippies trying to prolong the New Age.
I want to be clear in saying that any such activity that has the sole purpose of escaping from suffering and difficulty into the false bliss of disconnection has exactly the opposite intention from what I’m suggesting. In addition to wonder and awe, reconnection carries with it the tremendous burden of awareness and knowledge. As the architect William McDonough observed, “Yesterday, ignorance. Tomorrow, negligence.”
Sincerity, then, is not naïve. It is fierce. A force to be reckoned with. Sincerity takes a stand, saying, I will engage with the world in all honesty. I will not shrink from the truth of ugliness, of exploitation, of cruelty and destruction. I will also not overlook beauty, compassion, service, and love. Sincerity requires an unusual, though not impossible, amount of courage. But I can feel that my sincerity is heart-based, and my heart is infinite.