Concerning Sincerity

Concerning Sincerity

This is a longish entry and, it’s interesting, how modern technology has inclined us to sound or word bites.

It’s becoming almost revolutionary to ask people to slow down, to pay attention for more than a few minutes, to do or say things that make people pause and consider things from a variety of useful and deeper perspectives.

To be truly sincere, in whatever we are doing, we need these capacities – to slow down, to pay attention, and the willingness to see the many sides of anything important – like the many facets of a gem.  To be good therapists we need to practice that kind of sincerity.  We hope, as a result, that our clients will also be graced with the endless gifts that rise up from slowing down, paying attention, and opening to new and creative solutions for body, mind, and heart issues.

So today I thought I would share with you a long-ish excerpt from an essay called Concerning Sincerity that has influenced me deeply for nearly 50 years.

This is an essay by Jacques Riviere, a French editor, literary critic, and writer who lived in 1886 through 1925.  He died young at 38 from typhoid.

Here is part one of his beautiful essay, Concerning Sincerity.  It is from The Ideal Reader, a selection of his writing.

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First, a distinction must be made between sincerity toward others and sincerity toward self.  We shall not speak of the former.  As it is understood in society, it is too easy.  (That is probably why it has been made into a virtue.)  It consists in never confessing to feelings that the person with whom one is speaking has not been able to foresee; a man is lacking in sincerity toward us when the thoughts he shows us are not those we should have had in his place.  Sincerely toward others, as it must be understood, is called confession.  But this word awakens so many ideas of such a serious nature that a whole book would be required to develop them.


Sincerely toward self is a dangerous virtue.  It cannot be recommended; it does not make a man more sociable; it does not ingratiate him with his fellow creatures; it is not one of those good universal duties that molds our tractability.  To attempt it, one must be secretly chosen.

It would seem to be sufficient to let oneself go in order to be sincere – not to prevent oneself from feeling, from yielding to one’s spontaneity.  We stop being sincere the moment we intervene in ourselves; if I work on myself, I deform myself.  Sincerity means yielding to myself, obedience to the natural course of my emotions, an easy inclination, a self-satisfied access to my inner facility.  It requires no effort on my part; I shall exercise it by relaxing.

However, it is more exact to say:  sincerity is a continuous effort to create one’s soul in its real image.  There is nothing more deceitful than what is spontaneous, nothing more foreign to myself.  It is never with myself that I begin; the feelings I adopt naturally are not mine; I do not experience them, I fall into them right off as into a rut; they carry me along because they are convenient and reassuring; everybody has already traveled along them; we know where they go; no one has ever come to harm through them.  They introduce themselves to my heart right away with their credentials.  So clearly do I see advantage in them that I do not dream of doubting their truth.  They have just the right amount of declivity to bring me to the level of another person, into agreement with his thoughts; they are calculated to allow conversation.  But in spite of these amenities, they have no closer connections with my soul than the formulas of politeness.

My second thoughts are the true ones, those that await me in those depths down to which I do not go.  Not the first thoughts alone are thinking in me; in the very depths of myself there is a low, continual meditation about which I know nothing and about which I shall know nothing unless I make an effort:  this is my soul.  It is feeble and seems almost ideal; it scarcely exists; I sense it as if it were a possible and faraway world.  Every man, even those who get along with conventional emotions, is vaguely warned of the depths in himself, vaguely filled with a secret suspicion.  There is faint taste of insufficiency in everything that he experiences; he understands that he could be more authentic than he is, that other more hidden, more astonishing parts of himself could be concerned in the event.  But he does not know how to seize this reality which he contains; for it neither invites nor calls to him; and soon he loses even the very desire to find it.

In fact, how my soul disdains me!  It is not eager to live, it will make no sign to me.  All my feelings, which are still virtual, though already more real than I am, look at me ironically and seem to say:  “Will you dare get acquainted with us?”  They are enclosed and silent, but not vague; but their terrible precision is slumbering; it is still in imagination.  They well know that they can be born only through me:  nevertheless they treat me with disdain.

I must spy them out, lay hold of them.  Sincerely is a subtle hunt which pursues only silences.  It requires an untiring intellectual agility, a pitiless presence of mind.  It reigns over all that is silent within me and awakens the necessary feelings.  It avoids the most easy ones because they are deceptive; the ones it has to discover are not evident.  It tries several paths, and having tried them, turns away from them.  It has experience in truth; in other words, it has a hesitant touch which does not make mistakes any more.  For each event that befalls me, through a bold, diversified exploration, sincerity assembles all the thoughts I must have; following a mysterious necessity, it composes my soul; with ingenuity, it recognizes the scattered elements of that unedited, strange combination which will be my natural response.  Nothing is more unexpected than myself; I should never have imagined such a face.  However, when sincerity introduces it to me, I do not for a moment dream of denying it.  This is indeed that unknown person I was–and so close to me!  How might I have guessed that such opposite antagonistic feelings could come together and form a single soul so skillfully?

The sincere man is not the one who is always seen bounding forward, always ready to answer, always intimate with his heart and eager to reveal it.  The sincere man is not in such a hurry, for he knows how much work he has.  He is not a man of first impulses.  He does not possess his soul once and for all, he has not learned it by heart.  On the contrary, he constructs it anew for every occasion.  He doubts, waits, applies himself; he is filled with calculations like a financier; he stops at each level of himself and chooses what he needs to form his truth.  Or rather, let us compare him to a fine, joyful hunter who tracks his feelings, follows them, brings them to bay, brings them back.  How I like this merry prudence, this lively, tough attention, this contained enthusiasm, this reflective glance from under lowered lids, this smile!  Finally he exclaims:  “This is what I think!”

It is more difficult, more gay to be sincere than to be just.