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Last year in these pages I wrote, “Two characteristics qualify any person for Humanity’s Hall of Fame – generosity and gratitude.” (11/23/2010) I continue to believe there are no better measures of a meaningful life. But after some thought I must add…”as long as both are sincere.”
Sincerity is the heart of honesty and vice versa. There is an old tale about the meaning of the word “sincere” that traces it back to the Latin, sine and cera, meaning “without wax.” The story goes that when Roman and Greek sculptors finished their work on a piece, they would fill in its flaws with wax to make it seem perfect. Naturally a piece “without wax” was of far greater value.
Aristotle was more exact about the concept when he wrote that “truthfulness or sincerity is a desirable mean state between the deficiency of irony or self-deprecation and the excess of boastfulness” – another way of saying virtus stat in media.
Whatever its origins, the word is weighted with the need for truth-telling, i.e., a tangible sense of honesty. Need it be said in this year of political maneuverings that is upon us, every voter needs to be on the lookout for any candidate’s self-serving wax?
A recent editorial in the New Hampshire Union Leader took a Republican presidential candidate to task, stating, “We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.” The editor, Joseph McQuaid, explained in a later interview that the candidate, Mitt Romney, “doesn’t want to offend anybody, he wants to be liked, he wants to try to reach out and be very safe.” Mr. McQuaid later added, “Given the choice between the candidate who wants to be liked and the candidate who wants to be respected, we would rather have the guy who wants to be respected.” Sincerity, when genuine, merits that.
Sincerity is not about giving people what they want; it is about risking and sharing what one truly believes while respecting the right of others to endorse or discard it. I did not know that as a young priest and teacher. I worked very hard trying to tell others what I thought they needed to hear. I felt sincere doing so, and safe. But I never discovered the real responsibility – and power – of preaching (and teaching) until I started putting words to what I needed to say. In so doing, I discovered as well the deeper meaning and challenges of sincerity.
I would like to believe everyone knows sincerity “when they see it,” but that is not always the case. Anyone can be “had,” particularly by campaign promises. Editor McQuaid’s reminder that respect can be a measure of sincerity is timely. Voters, please take note.
(I need to admit that from the very beginning of writing this piece, I have been haunted by Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” specifically the Buffalo Bills barbershop quartet singing, “How can there be any sin in sincere…?” I never had an answer for tha till now, and it is “Only when it isn’t.”)