All of us love to be entertained with stories that wittily weave exaggeration, fantasy, drama, and real life into what would be otherwise boring stories. Lisa Earle McLeod, a sales leadership consultant, tells us that the difference between a boring story and an interesting one boils down to three things: emotions, embellishment, and authenticity. And the embellishment angle is the one we are going to discuss. But first, let’s figure out why embellished stories are good for us.
Laughter is often the result of an embellished story — that’s why we do it. Experts tell us that the axiom — laughter is the best medicine — is true! And to prove it, laughter was studied. The Mayo Clinic claims that laughter lightens mental moods, increases a person’s intake of oxygen rich air, releases endorphins, tamps down normal stress responses; and helps us relax — for real — in both the short and long term. And so, wit, self-deprecation, exaggeration, jokes, puns, help us turn dull stories into interesting, funny ones.
But what’s the difference between exaggerating/embellishing and lying? Again, Lisa says it best: “When it comes to storytelling, nuance and judgment matter. If the boss tells a story about a customer saying you’re the best company ever, it’s not critical that you compile a fact based competitive analysis. And if you over exaggerate about how the customer swooned, you won’t be fined by the fact police. But if the same boss exaggerates invoices, it crosses the line into lying. Most grown-ups are smart enough to know the difference.” [Lisa Earle McLeod. Why Exaggerating Your Stories Is Good for Everyone, Mostly. June 18, 2014. The Huffington Post]
How does this relate to exaggerating about things that pertain to God? We are all called to give witness about Jesus and our faith — no matter our walk in life. Isaiah 49:3, 5-6 tells us: “Behold I have offered you as a light for the Gentiles, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth”. 1 Corinthians 1:1-3 says: “ we are called to be saints … in every place of theirs and ours.” In effect, we are called to testify to the truth through our everyday life experiences. When we do this we give testimony about Christ. When we are able to talk about how our faith has sustained us through life’s trials and difficulties, we testify about Christ. When we have discovered peace, integrity, confidence in life amidst life’s difficulties, we testify about Christ. God desires this kind of help from us — for our own sake and that of others. But He does not need us to give false testimony.
Years ago, while serving as Chairman of the Board of a non-profit Catholic organization, I was given a wise, practical warning that I hope is worth sharing: “never, ever exaggerate for the Lord; it doesn’t help Him. Our Lord does not need exaggeration of Truth.” The following examples are some ways that explain where, when and why we exaggerate for the Lord.
Many Christians complain about having to endure boring Church services amongst friends or when talking to their pastors. They fail to realize their real issue or the real reason why any of us should go to Church. “And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” [Luke 4:8] Bishop Robert Barron teaches that we are each created to worship. Therefore we will either worship God or self. The complaint about boredom in Church reveals that the latter is more in play than the former. Yet, churches yield to the exaggerated boredom complaint for the sake of keeping members in their churches on Sundays.
Consider this story about St. Francis of Assisi. After being told by God to ‘rebuild my church’, Francis took cloth from his father’s business and sold it to raise funds for his mission from God. Yet, his actions were judged to be rash by the Bishop because Francis had not asked for the cloth; he had just taken it. The Bishop deemed Francis’ motives good, but his action rash. Francis was ordered to repay his father the value of the stolen cloth. Just like Francis, we have to convey the mission of being a Christian in a way that meets with God’s approval — both in motive and action.
How else do we exaggerate for the Lord? We exaggerate when we proclaim minor facts and/or truths in exaggerated ways. For example, when giving witness to others, do we really disclose the whole truth and nothing but the Truth, or do we veer off course as we try to captivate someone’s attention? Are we authentic when we talk about our faith? Do we live as we speak? Or do we hide certain failings out of shame or guilt?
Let me give you examples of ways to exaggerate for the Lord when teaching/promoting/giving witness to Natural Family Planning. Disclosure: Dave and I used NFP from the start of our marriage to plan our family; after learning the method and using it successfully, we decided to teach it to other couples. The natural method worked perfectly for us and we felt the knowledge was good for marriages. As I point out exaggerations common to NFP users, please understand, they are given merely as examples of how many of us unwittingly exaggerate for the Lord. It was the reason, the doctor issued the warning to me and others a long time ago.
When learning or hearing about NFP, couples immediately want to know how effective it is, why its good, how it differs from contraception and other answers. And so we talk about these issues to the best of our abilities. But its easier to exaggerate by relying on method effectiveness more than discussing user effectiveness rates. Yet, even if the user effectiveness was only 75% we would still be teaching it because it is the only moral option for planning a family; therefore we should not shy away from talking about the differences between user and method effectiveness rates. It is also easier to suggest that NFP improves married life when in fact we have only anecdotal and/or small studies to base that conclusion on. And so we should give witness to our own experiences about how it necessitated talking about the stresses of abstinence (if there were any), when to have the next child, how we were feeling about our marriage, etc. While teaching couples for the first time, there is a great temptation to imply that many, many couples are learning NFP. Yet, in truth, the numbers are low. It is simply amazing, however, that many couples are interested in learning and practicing NFP considering the culture of cohabitation prior to marriage, the overall low marriage rates, and high pre-marital sexuality raging even among Catholics. Will these habits affect long term divorce rates? Statistics are unavailable; so we have to turn to philosophical answers including the fact that we live in a time when sacrificial love is not highly respected or practiced. And, vice and virtue cannot co-exist; therefore vice will wax when personal virtue is waning. In addition, we rely on Theology of the Body arguments, Catholic encyclical, and Church teachings to bolster our witness. While these are all dry subject matters, we can spice it up with emotion and authenticity but exaggeration has to be avoided. The ‘hearing of our message’ has to be left up to God.
Catholics also exaggerate when giving witness about their special needs children, in my opinion. I know this because I am one of those parents. While our children with special needs are special indeed; life isn’t a cake walk for them or us. Perhaps, we are best suited to give witness when we give witness to the real emotions experienced while parenting children with special needs. But we need to do that without exaggerating that our lives are perfect — because they aren’t. We all struggle with wishing things had been different for the sake of our child, other children and even our own marriages. Yet, we are called to give witness to sacrificial living — what it really entails — even though few desire to learn about that. Nevertheless, admitting to life’s difficulties is more authentic than pretending all is easy and good in households with any types and ages of challenging children. And we all have them.
Furthermore, isn’t the human side of the Church practicing a silent form of exaggeration when it claims to support and value all human life yet refuses to open parochial schools for children with special needs — and for different reasons? And how authentic are we as we talk about sin but fail to acknowledge the great need for support groups and help for Catholic men or women suffering from addictions to pornography or alcohol or drugs or other things? For example, where are the Alcoholics Anonymous, Gambling or and Sex Addiction support groups within Catholic Churches? Why aren’t they advertised, if they exist? Why aren’t parishioners clamoring for these support groups? What about the marriage support groups or parent support groups?
Think of some examples in your life where you exaggerate for the Lord. While our motives may be good we lose our authenticity when our words embellish truth, Let’s continue to be those who give witness to the Lord but do it with pure emotion and authenticity and leave the embellishment out of our witness about Christ and his Church. But go ahead, and entertain your family and friends in social matters. We can all use a good laugh — and very often.