Kenneth Primrose reflects on what he's learned from Rowan Williams about telling the truth, self-awareness and accountability


For some time I have been cultivating a curious hobby. I've been writing to wise and influential thinkers to ask them what question they think we should be asking ourselves.

One of those people was Rowan Williams, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, and now professor of theology at Cambridge.

The question Williams thought it was important that we ask ourselves is "who do I tell the truth to?"

The question came into its own for me sometime after receiving it. I had noticed that I sometimes had irrational flash points of anger or anxiety in otherwise fairly prosaic conversations, but was unable to explain what the triggers were. It was at this point that I began to consider Rowan Williams question as a practical suggestion. I returned to the letter where he had written that...

“We need to find someone who will listen without judging and probe me gently to help me discover what I really fear and what I really hope for. For me the presence of God is above all the presence in which it makes no sense not to tell the truth; anyone who helps me face to the truth is doing for me the work of God. But even a non-believer might make use of the idea of some space in a life where there was room to face the truth. Our truest friends give us some glimpse of this, but we also need at times to find someone who will make this a priority.”

I made contact with someone I trusted, an elder from my church who held within him a quiet wisdom. We would meet to speak, and through gentle provoking questions, he would draw me out and I would hear myself articulating ideas and feelings that lurked just beneath the surface of my awareness. Those questions gave me clarity that enabled me to focus more clearly on my surroundings, to see those things that had frequently been tripping me up. It was like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time. 

Throw-away comments I would make in conversation were revisited, and required me to tap into memories that had been buried. Aspects of childhood were cast into a different light. At the end of each session, I would return home feeling as if I had been in some way returned to myself, or at least glimpsed what that might mean.

Sometimes I harboured resentment which I gripped with a righteous indignation. Other areas contained the pain of disappointment, failed expectations or the pain of loss - all of which had been buried as some kind of coping mechanism. What I had assumed showed strength of character, the ability to go on through adversity - I began to realise was more akin to cowardice. Pain I thought had been dealt with, I had actually been carrying in both body and mind.

What I had assumed showed strength of character, the ability to go on through adversity - I began to realise was more akin to cowardice

Through being listened to and gently prodded, I began to understand myself a bit better. Articulating the truth about myself or my past had a power I had not anticipated, as these situations seemed to somehow derive power from the fact that they were spoken about or acknowledged.

The emotional journey this took me on brought to mind a sermon by the beloved writer Frederick Buechner called 'The Stewardship of Pain'. In the sermon Buechner exposited the parable of the talents in way that was fresh, challenging and practical.

The parable (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) tells the story of a master entrusting his three servants with his goods.Two faithful servants invest their talents, and are duly rewarded by their master. The other, however, is afraid of losing the investment and instead buries it. He is sternly reprimanded for his behaviour.

It’s a frightening story, partly because many of us would sympathise with the cautious servant who buries the riches. Surely he has been in some way prudent and respectful of the master? Buechner reads the parable as asking the question - what do we do with the mixed lives we are given? The third servant takes what he is given, and Buechner here focuses on the pain - and buries it. In doing so, that servant becomes the one we can most relate to “We bury for years the tragic memory, the secret fear, the unspoken loneliness, the unspeakable desire”. The servant buries what he is given because he was afraid, and we all do likewise with much of what we are dealt in life. Burying our lives means that we also in some sense bury our joy as well as our pain, and we create our own hell’s to live in. As Buechner puts it “To bury your life is to have it wither in the ground and diminish. It is to be deeply alone. It is to be less alive than you were to start with.”

The other servants are called “good and faithful”, through trading with what they have been given. To trade is to give what we have in return for what we need, and what we need is essentially one another. Being a good steward of your pain involves trading it, risking being open, reaching out to one another in compassion and shared experience.

To be a good steward of your pain, you need first to be honest about it - most especially to yourself. Rowan William’s question urges us to find someone who will help us to become honest, who will help us to discover the truth about ourselves. Without this, we are in danger of burying our pain, of living superficially in a way that does not allow us to trade well with what we have been given. It is therefore a question with sharp teeth - one that asks us to proactively seek out someone we can speak to, or to be that non-judgemental listening ear, who helps return someone to themselves.

Kenneth Primrose teaches Religion & Philosophy in Scotland. A collection of the questions and interviews he has gathered can be found on the project website