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SINCERITY

I

     LOVE contains no complete and lasting happiness save in the transparent atmosphere of perfect sincerity. Until we attain this sincerity, our love is but an experiment: we live in expectation, and our words and kisses are only provisional. But sincerity is not possible except between lofty and trained consciences. Moreover, it is not enough that the consciences should be that: if sincerity is to become natural and essential, this is requisite besides, that the consciences shall be almost equal, of the same extent, of the same quality, and that the love that unites them shall be deep-laid. And thus it is that the lives glide away of so many men who never meet the soul with which they could have been sincere.

     But it is impossible to be sincere with others before learning to be sincere with one's self. Sincerity is only the consciousness and analysis of the motives of all life's actions. It is the expression of this consciousness that one is able, later to lay before the eyes of the being with whom one is seeking the happiness of sincerity.

     Thus understood, sincerity's aim is not to lead to moral perfection. It leads elsewhere, higher if we will: in any case to more human and more fertile regions. The perfection of a character, as we generally understand it, is too often but an unproductive abstention, a sort of ataraxy, an abatement of instinctive life which is, when all is said, the one source of all the other lives that we succeed in organizing within us. This perfection tends to suppress our too ardent desires: ambition, pride, vanity, egoism, the craving for enjoyment, in short, all the human passions, that is to say, all that constitutes our primitive vital force, the very groundwork of our energy of existence, which nothing can replace. If we stifle within ourselves all the manifestations of life, to substitute for them merely the contemplation of their defeat, soon we shall have nothing left to contemplate.

     Wherefore, it is not of importance to have no more passions, vices or faults: that is impossible, so long as one is a man in the midst of men, since we make the mistake to describe as passion, vice or fault that which is the very basis of human nature. But it is of importance to recognize, in their details and in their secrets, those which we possess and to watch them at work from a standpoint so high that we may look upon them without fearing lest they should overthrow us or escape from our control to go and heedlessly to harm us or those around us.

     So soon as, from that stand-point, we see our instincts, even the lowest and the most selfish, at work, provided that we are not wilfully wicked  –  and it is difficult to be that when our intelligence has acquired the lucidity and the force which this faculty of observation implies  –  so soon as we see them thus at work, they become harmless, like children under their parents' eyes. We can even lose sight of them, forget to watch them for a time; they will commit no serious misdeeds; for the obligation that lies upon them to repair the evil which they have done renders them naturally circumspect and soon makes them lose the habit of doing harm.

II

     When we have achieved a sufficient sincerity with ourselves, it does not follow that we mast deliver it to the first-comer. The frankest and most loyal man has the right to hide from others the greater part of what he thinks or feels. If it be uncertain whether the truth which you propose to speak will be understood, do not utter it. It would appear in others quite different from that which it is in you; and, taking in them the appearance of a lie, it would do the same harm as a real lie. Whatever the absolute moralists may say, so soon as one is no longer among equal consciences, every truth, to produce the effect of truth, requires focussing; and Jesus Christ Himself was obliged to focus the greater part of those which He revealed to His disciples, for, had He been addressing Plato or Seneca instead of speaking to fishers of Galilee, He would probably have said to them things different from those which He did say.

     It is, therefore, right that we should present to each man only the truth for which he has room in the hut or the palace which he has built to admit the truths of his life. But let us, nevertheless, give ten or twenty times as many truths as we are offered in exchange; for in this, as in all circumstances, it behoves the more conscient to take the lead.

     The reign of instinct begins only when this focussing is no longer necessary. We then enter the privileged region of confidence and love, which is like a delightful shore where we meet in our nakedness and bathe together under the rays of a kindly sun. Until this hour, man had lived on his guard, like a culprit. He did not yet know that every man has the right to be what he is; that there is no shame in his mind or in his heart, any more than in his body. He soon learns, with the feeling of relief of an acquitted prisoner, that that which he thought it his duty to conceal is just the most radical portion of the force of life. He is no longer alone in the mystery of his conscience; and the most pitiful secrets which he discovers there, far from saddening him as of yore, cause him to love better the firm and gentle light which two united hands turn upon it in concert.

     All the evil, all the meannesses, all the weaknesses which we thus disclose in ourselves change their nature so soon as they are disclosed; "and the greatest fault," as the heroine of a recent drama says, '"when confessed in a loyal kiss, becomes a truth more beautiful than innocence." More beautiful? I do not know; but younger, more vivid, more visible, more active and more loving.

     In this state, the idea no longer comes to us to hide a secret thought or a secret sentiment, however vulgar or contemptible. They can no longer make us blush, seeing that, in owning them, we disown them, we separate them from ourselves, we prove that they no longer belong to us, no longer take part in our lives, no longer spring from the active, voluntary and personal side of our strength, but from the primitive, formless and enslaved being that affords us an entertainment as amusing as are all those in which we detect the play of the instinctive powers of nature. A movement of hatred, of selfishness, of silly vanity, of envy or disloyalty, when examined in the light of perfect sincerity, becomes nothing more than an interesting and singular flower. This sincerity, like fire, purifies all that it embraces. It sterilizes the dangerous leaven and turns the greatest injustice into an object of curiosity as harmless as a deadly poison in the glass case of a museum. Imagine Shylock capable of knowing and confessing his greed: he would cease to be greedy, and his greed would change its shape and no longer be odious and hurtful.

     For the rest, it is not indispensable that we should correct our acknowledged faults; for there are faults that are, so to speak, necessary to our existence and our character. Many of our defects are the very roots of our good qualities. But the knowledge and admission of these faults and defects chemically precipitates their venom, which becomes no more than a salt, lying inactive at the bottom of the heart, whose innocent crystals we can study at leisure.

III

     The purifying force of the avowal depends upon the quality of the soul that makes it and of the soul that receives it. Once that the balance is established, avowals raise the level of happiness and love. So soon as they are confessed, old lies or new, the most serious weaknesses change into unexpected ornaments and, like beautiful statues in a park, become the smiling witnesses and placid demonstrations of the clearness of the day.

     We all desire to attain that blissful sincerity; but we are long fearful lest those who love us should love us less if we revealed to them that which we scarcely dare reveal to ourselves. It seems to us as though certain avowals would disfigure for ever the image which they have formed of us. If it were true that the avowals would disfigure it, that would be a proof that we are not loved on the same scale as that on which we love. If he who receives the avowal cannot rise to the height of loving us the more for that avowal, there is a misunderstanding in our love. It is not he who makes the avowal that should blush, but he who does not yet understand that we have overcome a wrong by the very act of confessing it. It is not we but a stranger who now stands in the place where we committed a fault. The fault itself we have eliminated from our being. It no longer sullies any save him who hesitates to admit that it sullies us no longer. It has nothing more in common with our real life. We are no longer anything but the accidental witness of it and no more responsible for it than a good soil is responsible for an ill weed or a mirror for an ugly reflection that passes across it.

IV

     Let us not fear any the more that this absolute sincerity, this double transparent life of two beings who love each other, will destroy the background of shadow and mystery that must exist at the bottom of any lasting affection, nor that it will dry up the great unknown lake which, at the summit of every love, feeds the desire for mutual knowledge, the desire which itself is merely the most passionate form of the desire for greater love. No, that background is only a sort of movable and provisional scenery that serves to give to provisional loves the illusion of infinite space. Remove it, and behind it there will at last appear the genuine horizon, with the real sky and sea. As for the great unknown lake, we soon perceive that, until this day, we had drawn from it only a few drops of troubled water. It does not open on to love its healing springs until the moment of sincerity; for the truth in two beings is incomparably richer, deeper and less exhaustible than their appearance, reticence and lies.

V

     Lastly, let us not fear that we shall exhaust our sincerity nor imagine that it will not be possible for us to attain its furthest limits. When we believe and wish it absolute, it is never more than relative; for it can manifest itself only within the borders of our conscience, and those borders are shifted every day, so that the act or thought which we present under the colours which we see in it at the moment of avowal may have an import quite different from that which we attribute to it to-day. In the same way, the act, thought or feeling which we do not avow, because we do not yet perceive it, may become to-morrow the object of a more urgent and graver avowal than all those which we have made to this hour.


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