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During times of universal deceit,  

telling the truth  

becomes a revolutionary act. 

-George Orwell 

For numerous reasons and in many ways, we are challenged at telling the truth. Whether we are embarrassed or feel like we’re not enough or we don’t want to hurt someone. Or we’re unsure that our organization is doing the right thing and we don’t feel empowered to speak out. Or we’re not even aware that we’re being untruthful because of societal circumstances or what we’ve come to believe as the truth about ourselves.

In Jon Harr’s book A Civil Action, a real-life story of a suit by families in Massachusetts seeking justice for the deaths of their children due to pollution, attorney Jan Schlictmann is told by an opposing lawyer that “the truth lies at the bottom of a bottomless pit.”

Elephant in the RoomThose working for social change confront lies on a regular basis, and we can occasionally be the victim of our own desire for the truth. Even those organizations that speak out and challenge power can sometimes experience similar issues around power internally or in relationship to their constituencies. I wrote about unearthing organizational secrecy several years ago and still see this in practice on a regular basis.

A wonderful recent blog post by a colleague explores challenges to the concept of inclusion, ostensibly a positive practice by many seeking a greater voice for those who have been historically marginalized. But if we don’t understand the deeper truths many we are trying to include experience within a broader system of power that doesn’t hear their voices. In this scenario, even when the truth is spoken, it has no place to make an impact if the system doesn’t change as well.

Making an impact is another place we are confronted with truth-telling-through the process of living out a vision and mission for our work, in shaping and acting on what has come to be known as a “theory of change.” I was recently working with a group that is inspiring in how they have shifted the landscape in their chosen place and field, and is now addressing questions-much like the issue of inclusion raised in the post above-of whether the strategy they are pursuing may in some way contribute to the problem they are committed to resolving.

A great deal of neuroscience research over the past decade confirms the fact that in our brains neurons that “fire together, wire together” or “where attention goes, energy flows”: if we are what we eat, we’re finding that we become what we think as well. This has the positive impact of enabling us to re-frame our thinking, to innovate, and to build resilience individually and collectively.

However, on both an individual, and also on an organizational and even cultural level, this may demonstrate that a great deal of what we believe is in fact untrue, but simply the experience of thinking the same thoughts over and over again and coming to accept them as the truth. Many in the organizational behavior and systems change space refer to the outcome of such persistent thoughts as “mental models.”

If we come to believe certain things as true in our own lives–which may or may not be–then our organizations and cultures also have potentially slipped into a shared post-traumatic stress disorder where we live out stories and patterns that may not be “true” for us or contributing to lasting change, but simply accepted because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

Even in instances where entire societies or the world have been deceived, truth telling can be a healing act: not to excuse or correct, but to come to terms with and learn from past injustices.

Individuals and organizations–and hopefully whole cultures–can begin to rewire belief systems and move closer to surfacing and acting from “the truth”: not just a more positive story about our work, but hopefully one that creates richer relationships and greater impact as well.

A Brave And Startling Truth
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseums
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Maya Angelou

March 2015