“Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth,” wrote Katherine Mansfield.
Taking risks and facing the truth had been my guiding principle throughout much of my adult life, even before I learned that satya – speaking and living the truth – is part of the five yamas of Patanjali’s yoga sutras. These sutras, or threads, guide the aspiring yogi with a profound structure of eight steps to follow in the spiritual path to samadhi (enlightenment). Important to note that these five yamas are the first step in the yogic path, before the asana practice that has become synonymous with the word yoga.
I often remind my yoga students the principle of satya during an asana practice as I encourage them to listen to their bodies and stay true to their breathing. As a writer, the famous Mansfield quote is glued onto my office wall, lest for a moment I forget to tell the truth.
But like Mansfield, until very recently, I believed that telling the truth was “the hardest thing” and that it often came at a heavy price. When you are truthful, I learned, you cannot ignore the nagging voice in your head that says that your marriage is no longer working, and this truth then puts you on the risky trajectory of leaving your secure – even if unhappy – marriage to face the unknown. And when you are deep in that dark tunnel, receiving myriad punches from life, you do wonder if this truth was worth it. You fantasise about the comfy sofa you have left behind and the practicality of having a dishwasher. The comfort of truth is not very appealing when you don’t know how you’ll make next month’s rent. And then, just when you thought that you’d never make it, you see the first glimmer of light. You are not quite there, but your home without the comfy sofa and the dishwasher nonetheless feels like home. A house can always burn to the ground, you tell yourself, but integrity is priceless.
This stubborn sense of integrity urged me to speak up on a parenting forum about the issue of mental health amongst the young as a result of Covid measures. In speaking for those vulnerable who had struggled to adjust to hybrid studies and to wearing a mask all day, I was careful not to minimise other parents’ legitimate concerns for safety in classrooms. I respectfully asked them to consider another perspective. I was inspired by what I had heard Irshad Manji, a Canadian educator, say recently in an interview.
“You can stand your ground and seek common ground at the same time.”
Once I had shared some personal stories I closed my letter with “I hope that my plea would be met with fair consideration and compassion” and sat back, expecting the vicious counter attack to begin. Because telling the truth was the hardest thing, right?
Within minutes the emails started to flood in my inbox. But contrary to what I had expected, these emails had nothing to do with an attack. They were long letters from mothers thanking me for speaking up and went on to share with me their private struggles. Others were outspoken on the forum and thanked me publicly for starting a conversation that had been sorely missed. Most surprisingly, even those who disagreed with me did so respectfully. Suddenly we were having what I had been missing, and craving so much during this Covid nightmare: a heartfelt and truthful conversation.
Irshad Manji also said, “to be heard, you must first be willing to hear.”
It sounds so obvious and simple, yet Covid, a global crisis, rather than uniting us has created a political divide of two extreme vocal groups with no space for anything in between. One group is calling the other “selfish” and the other accuses the first of being “sheep”. While insults continue to fly, no one is curious about the other group’s pain.
Yet in speaking my truth I have learned some valuable lessons. Firstly, that there are far more people in the moderate middle who don’t subscribe to either extreme opinion and will speak up if a safe space allows them to. Secondly, that speaking the truth doesn’t always have to be the hardest thing. We are so afraid to offend, or be judged, that we withdraw into a silent resignation, convinced that there is nothing we, ordinary people, can do to change the situation. We then risk feeling alone.
But what if more people spoke up, and did so while truly listening?
Anger has a bad reputation as a negative emotion, but anger can also be a powerful catalyst that moves one to take action. And once this anger is infused with compassion we become what my friend Andrea calls “compassionate warriors.” Facing the truth and speaking up, when done with respect and an open mind, needn’t lead to ostracism. It might even bring us closer to each other.