Tell all the truth, but …

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems goes as such:

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 —

Eugene Peterson pointed out the poem years ago and then wrote a book on the parables of Jesus which he called Tell It Slant, inspired by the poem. It’s stuck with me and shaped the way I try to communicate ever since.

There is something that happens to us when truth is used as a club, used to control or punish us more than to lead us and entice us. We become truth-shy.

After years of being told by parents, teachers, and coaches how to do things the right way, we grow into overly sensitive adults who can hardly be told we’ve done anything wrong, hardly told anything that challenges us with the truth.

But some of us have experienced truth-tellers who “eased/With explanation kind” and didn’t plow right through us with the truth. They eased the truth on us, telling stories about themselves or poignant fictions that made the reveal that they were correcting us a gentle surprise.

But too often, I’m impatient. I want to bowl straight down the alley with the truth and end up with a split. Dickinson coaxes: “Success in Circuit lies.” When we hit people between the eyes with straight shots of bludgeoning truth, they tend to put up defenses and the truth bounces off them. They argue. They dodge. They retaliate.

But in Circuit, in taking the indirect route, the telling of truth finds an unsuspecting listener, an unguarded listener. We find the lies we’ve believe undermined by “Truth’s superb surprise” as our eyes pop open to what has been slowly, subtly, kindly laid before us.

“The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind —” for the truth is glorious and as blinding as lightning. If I were to face the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about myself, I couldn’t bear it. The horror of all my sins laid out before me would wreck me. But so too would the beautiful things. I barely believe the few loving thoughts others share with me from time to time; I don’t know that I would believe the true breadth of love there is out there for me.

And so, bit by bit, story by story, we tell it slant, praying for the Day when the one who is himself the Truth will be revealed and indirection becomes a thing of the past.