In this season of careless, mean and harmful speech, I have been thinking a lot about words. I have been accused at various times in my life of having a sharp tongue, of not thinking before I speak, of being an occasional blurter. I have watched the faces of loved ones crumple when my words were unintentionally cutting and I have had my children complain about the harshness of my tone. During the 5 day silent retreat I attended in June, I laughed when we broke silence for a small group session and people seemed to be telling our teacher why they had come. I wasn’t sure what I would say until my turn came and then surprised myself by saying I was there to work on practicing mindful speech, which, I quickly added was pretty funny considering it was a SILENT retreat. But tears sprang to my eyes as I realized how little care I had often taken with my words and the powerful impact that our speech can have on others.
I should know better because I have suffered on the receiving end. Ken referred to my extremely poor housekeeping as “a Mary mess” but then began to use that phrase to describe anything that might go wrong with or around me. “Ah, yes another Mary mess”. These words not only stung but started to be internalized. If someone says you are something often enough it will start to seep its way into your self image. There are many stories of super models being called ugly as children, (too tall, too skinny, to unusual of features) and taking years to erase that thought from their own minds, if they ever could.
My minister interrupted the long-planned stewardship service yesterday with his take on a deeply troubling post-election incident of bullying at a local middle school. A group of 7th graders surrounded a table of Hispanic kids in the school cafeteria and began chanting “Build the Wall!” while their victims wept. As Peter pointed out, we can tell ourselves that 7th graders are wired for cruelty and not be overly alarmed, but we know better. We know the atmosphere of hate, of divisiveness that has been fostered during this election. We remember word for word the reckless, impulsive and deeply damaging speech and actions of the person the electoral college will likely choose to be the President of what is still one of the greatest nations in the world—a land of freedom and opportunity. A land where it is legal to say almost anything except “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there is none. We treasure this freedom above all others for we have witnessed the very many societies where it does not exist. But it comes with a price.
The first of The Four Agreements in the brilliant book of the same name by the Toltec philosopher Don Miguel Ruiz is “Be Impeccable with your word”. I originally interpreted this as never tell a lie and was squirming thinking of a few white ones I had told along the way, the omissions here and there, the tax returns that might contain a few inaccuracies. But that is not really what he meant. The message is to take great care with the words you choose to utter for they are powerful and can work for both good and evil. He is advocating for words chosen to uplift, to support, to comfort and to encourage both ourselves and others. He is asking that we use our words to spread love.
That is so very much harder than it seems. Many of us believe that the truth is all that is required for right speech. The truth is its own defense. If it is uncomfortable for someone to hear it—oh well, it still needs to be said because it is TRUE. This topic always reminds me of the scene in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Canada that my dad had booked for a family reunion. All family members were on their own to arrange transportation to the fairly remote site, but once there my dad was generously footing the bill for his kids and their spouses and kids. It was no small expense for a retired minister and an act of great kindness and generosity. Ken and I had experienced a number of inconveniences along our very long route and when we finally arrived in the lobby and were greeted by my very excited dad who said “How was your trip?”, Ken replied “Perfectly dreadful.” This was true, I suppose, but in my opinion was absolutely unnecessary to share. A small white lie response of “Fine” or even” A little long, but we’re so happy to be here” would’ve been a far better choice in my opinion. Why make your host feel bad about something that is over and out of his control? There is no defense for such a response except truth and I don’t think that’s enough.
So what is right speech, anyway? Well, according to a yoga teacher of long ago, it is something that passes a three point check list, with two out of three affirmative answers required to justify speaking up:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?
If you think about applying this in daily life it makes some real sense. Maybe you are already careful and measured with your speech. If so, I truly envy you. But if you are not, this formula may prove to be helpful. Think of all the times you have had to say something hard. Your roommate is a slob and you are on the verge of moving out. Should you confront her? Is it true-yes. Is it kind-no. Is it necessary—absolutely as she will soon be paying rent alone. Maybe a friend drinks too much and is worrying all her friends. True?-check. Kind?-maybe not. Necessary-for her health and well-being-yes. Maybe the person you love is leaving the house in an outfit you don’t like. They ask does this look ok? Saying no may be true, but it is not kind (unless they might actually embarrass themselves in something scary) and not necessary. There are better examples that escape me right now, but you get the idea.
The point is really just that we must take more care with what comes out of our mouths. People are listening. People who can be hurt by our words. People who may quote us in ways we never anticipated. I am pretty sure even crazy, orange Donald would not want his ridiculous, shoot-from-the-hip “We’ll build a wall” comment to be chanted by 7th graders to torture classmates. At least I hope not. At least I PRAY not.
Our speech has the power to destroy, but also to uplift. How many times have Americans listened to their eloquent leaders (or at least the powerfully delivered words of gifted speech writers) and found comfort and inspiration? FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and other fireside chats got an entire nation through the ravages of depression and world war. Or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” which motivated a whole generation to take on public service.
Words can prompt action, give solace, change hearts and minds. They move us for good and evil. They help us figure out who we are and when we lack our own we can borrow those used by others. Let’s commit to making our words work to build people up, to encourage them, to make them feel good about themselves and spur them on to even greater goodness and accomplishment. So when I make a small step toward a cleaner house I hope people in my world will say “Looks great! Good for you. Can I help you keep it that way?” Instead of “Hmmm. We’ll see if it lasts.” When a student makes a step toward better grades or study habits, may we respond with “That’s wonderful! How did you do it? Can I help you keep going? I believe in you”. And when a political opponent extends an olive branch and says, “I honestly think we want at least some of the same things” try listening hard, looking for the thin spit of common ground and see if you can dredge up even more land you can both stand on. It seems the only way.
I would like to make those Active Listening exercises they make you do in relationship counseling mandatory right now. The super slow-moving, often tedious kind where you listen very hard to the other person list their grievances and then parrot back to them what you heard with “I think I heard you say that….” And then they can correct anything you didn’t hear correctly with “No what I actually said was….” I HATED this shit. It took FOREVER to cover one single topic, but when it was my turn to talk and be truly listened to, it was a powerful experience. It is really something when someone invests the time to hear you and try to understand and fully take in not just your words, but the feelings and emotions behind them. It can bring genuine healing, but it is very hard work.
I wish for all of us in the months ahead, the fortitude to have those kinds of conversations. To move past the blather and rhetoric and flat-out hate speech to try to really utter our truth as we know it and allow people we disagree with, are appalled by, are shocked to know even exist in numbers that make them nearly our statistical equals, to do the same. If you’re blue, ask a red person to lunch and vice versa. No way out except through and that means dialogue. Lots and lots of exhausting dialogue. Take your vitamins!