Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Being sincere

 Over a week ago an op-ed piece appeared in The New York Times. I didn't clip and save it because it seemed so wrong-headed. But It bothered my son Tim, the adman, enough to bring it up in a phone call. It still bothers me.

The author was arguing against the advice to "be yourself," and against being "authentic." He ended with the advice to be "sincere." Neither Tim nor I could figure out the distinction being made. "Sincere" comes from the Latin, meaning pure, unadulterated, and has come to mean an expression of genuine feeling.

All well and good, if the author's intent was for us to go inside ourselves in search of our genuine feelings. But we seldom experience a pure feeling. By the time we're an adolescent, our response to any sensory experience is a blend of emotions based on our unique biography. My own internal response to Orlando and presidential politics is a mixture of fear, anger, and helplessness that brings back memories of a brutal childhood. No pure, unadulterated feelings there.

And it's horrible advice when applied to any external expression of our feelings. Not really much different from "be yourself." We are many selves. We are, hopefully, not the same self with a parent as with a lover, or the same self with our children as with our boss. We learn subconsciously which self goes to work, which self rides the subway to work, which self meets a friend for lunch.

Yes, when we're working or thinking creatively, we want to be as sincere to ourselves as possible. But when we present our work or our thoughts to any audience, whether one person or many, we can't do so effectively without considering that audience.

My children were 2, 5, and 7 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. We were living in Manhattan at the time; the older two were in public school on the fringes of Harlem. How to prepare them for school the next day? Certainly not with my own feelings—I can still hear the tolling of the Riverside Church carillon and the sirens screaming past up Broadway—but for what they might expect that their classmates were feeling.

Sincerely yours,