"What holds style and substance in tandem is truth," says Peter Chao. "Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Ultimately, God holds us accountable for truth in our hearts." Photo by Joao Cruz on Unsplash.
Every four years, the US Presidential debates are welcome interruptions in my reading and writing.
After watching two of the three exchanges, I inadvertently get the impression that the showdown is more about style than it is about substance. It is about getting the attention of the audience by looking credible and able. It is not so much about what is said as how it is articulated.
Take the 2016 war of words between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as an example.
It is about getting the attention of the audience by looking credible and able.
The first impression determines how the voter would cast her ballot. There is no second chance at making the first impression. Cut-offs in the first debate that show the incumbent appearing tired, impatient and petulant plunge his poll ratings the next day.
The audience (and media) look for sound byte capsules that would stay in the mind. It really does not matter if the truth is stretched or bent to suit each speaker’s position.
In fact, after each debate, the networks are known to air a fact check to determine the veracity of each candidate’s claims. But there are no attempts to hold the candidates responsible for what they had said. The electorate is expected to discern the truth by listening to the speakers’ polished and stylish rhetoric.
Words are symbols that must be interpreted to be meaningful. Symbols are signs that point to realities.
A frown on a face may indicate sadness in the heart. A sign with an arrow pointed left warns a motorist against turning right. Bursts of “Mayday! Mayday!” crackling over a loudspeaker signify a life-threatening emergency. The meaning must be clear and truthful for the sign to be useful.
Ironically, those who are empty on the inside are compelled to window-dress.
Frequently, we use symbols to project an image that is not consistent with the truth.
A young man trying to impress his date may project wealth he does not possess. Designer clothes, performance automobiles and branded accessories may elicit admiration and awe from bystanders and observers. But if they deflect from, rather than reflect the reality of the user, then the style is nothing more than a lie.
Ironically, those who are empty on the inside are compelled to window-dress. So fearful are they of being rejected that they obsessively cover up with impressive adornments.
Building an impression on a lie is erecting on sand. Eventually the truth will be known and the hoax would be exposed. Living a lie necessitates the constant evasion of the light, and is marked by insecurity and fear.
On the other hand, those who decry style and form can be brutish, boorish and beastly. They may be truthful and substantial, but they are ugly and uncouth. Very few would consider an evening with such a person as enchanting. They may win my respect, but certainly not my heart.
The heart is a good place to begin, when deciding the appropriate expressions of my life. If there is truth in my heart, then the style and form of my life would be a natural outflowing of what is within, a genuine expression of who I am.
Genuine interiority demands a corresponding exteriority.
What is in my heart would be the compass that would direct my behaviour, lifestyle and choices.
I would like to cultivate excellence in matters of the heart.
I want to ensure that the passion of love is unquenched; the fire of commitment is constantly stoked; the desire to perform to the extreme of my capacity is unsullied; the quality of my self-giving is not compromised; and the ability to understand human motives and intentions, perennially expanding.
What is in my heart would be the compass that would direct my behaviour, lifestyle and specific choices that I will make.
The natural expressions in my life may mean that I am drawn to people with refined manners, thoughtful expressions, creative freedom, honest emotions and a mischievous streak.
The activities that attract me may be those that are humanly interactive, emotionally intuitive and physically undemanding. I may be attracted to things that are aesthetically beautiful, powerfully driven, imaginatively designed and painstakingly produced.
Ultimately, God holds us accountable for truth in our hearts.
Personalised and individualised draw me more than assembly-line manufactured; so too the marginalised with no voice, than the celebrity whose shallow thoughts are amplified.
Whether what I do, how I choose and the way I live impresses or repels others, I have no control. That is of no concern to me. I am only careful that the external symbols of my life are true to who I am.
Jesus taught: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (Matthew 12:33-37)
The form of our lives should reflect who we are. Ultimately, God holds us accountable for truth in our hearts. Forms and styles do matter after all. They either express the truth in us, or they dress the hollowness within with impressions.
What holds style and substance in tandem is truth. Style expresses on the outside the substance that is inside. Where attractive style is true to rich substance, we have a beautiful life. Where impressive form hides an inadequate core, we have an empty existence.
The heart of the matter is, indeed, the matter of the heart.
This article is an excerpt from the book, Ponderings En Route (Singapore, Eagles Communications, 2018), and is republished with permission. The book is available for purchase here.
Reflection and Discussion
- “Truth is what holds style and substance together.” Can you think of a speech or sermon you’ve heard recently that illustrates this?
- “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) What are the words coming out of you today? Are you building people up or weighing them down with criticism and judgement?
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