Monday, November 1, 2010

The Power of Words, Revisited

What my mother used to say was that old chestnut: “If you don’t have anything good to say about anybody, don’t say anything at all.” I was thinking about this just this morning because I was finishing up the last of two stacks of essays—a job that requires me to be critical.

I can’t exactly hand papers back blank because I found nothing good to say (actually, there’s usually something positive I can say, and I always begin my end comment with that).

And, it’s also my job to point out flaws or errors and make suggestions for how to improve the next one.

Fortunately, I think my students know me well enough to know that grades and comments on essays aren’t personal. For one thing, I tell them this at the beginning of the semester: “Grades aren’t personal; they’re meant to be instructive. A poor grade doesn’t mean I don’t like you.” I even tell them that I’ve given A’s to papers I thoroughly disagree with and F’s to papers whose authors I actually agree with. It’s all in how it’s written, how well the thesis is supported. Has the writer done his or her job?

And this got me thinking about the “jobs” of the people in our lives, our relatives, our friends, our lovers, what is fair for them to expect of us, and what is fair for us to expect of them. This question is also on my mind because my friend MaryLou and I are reading The Reader together, in which the narrator faces a dilemma: he knows his former lover’s secret, one of which she is tremendously ashamed--she’s illiterate. Yet she stands trial for war crimes committed while she was a camp guard at Auschwitz, specifically for an incident in which she and a few other guards made the decision to leave Jewish concentration camp inmates trapped in a burning church. There was only a handful of guards; they didn’t dare risk freeing the prisoners and being overrun. But the other guards accused the illiterate woman of being their leader, the decision-maker, the one who wrote up the false report white-washing the incident. They, like Eichmann, were “just following orders.”

The narrator is stunned that his former lover decides, in court, on the spot, that she will accept their lie, the shifting of all the responsibility on to her, thus accepting a harsher punishment rather than revealing she couldn’t read or write. His dilemma becomes: Do I say nothing? Or do I intervene with the court and tell them the truth about her?

What would you do? Some people will say, it’s her decision to make since it’s her life. She didn’t ask you to intervene, so butt out. Others will say, she’s making a horrid choice—being illiterate isn’t a crime. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Accept responsibility for your part of the crime, but don’t take on all of it. So they will intervene for the sake of justice and to help out their friend.

I think both sides are valid. Who are we to play God and make decisions for other people if that decision goes against their wishes? It’s their life. On the other hand, what friend wants to see a friend suffer unnecessarily?

I can only conclude that the “right” thing to do will vary by the situation you find yourself in. For me, the bottom line has become: “What is my agenda here? What is motivating me?” Gathering as complete a picture as I can of a situation, can I make a determination about what is the most loving thing to do? Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to grant someone else their humanity, their freedom of choice. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to intervene---not by making decisions for the other person, but at least by talking to them about it, presenting them with your alternate view of their situation.

All of which brings me back to the power of words. Words that are used as barbs for the sole intention of hurting another: I think those were mainly the kinds of words the Buddha and my mother were talking about. These are never okay. Words that are intended as constructive criticism, like those I write at the end of student papers, are certainly okay. They’re even part of an implicit agreement we’ve made with each other when a student hands a paper in: they’re asking for my criticism and feedback, and I am accepting that job.

Words that have good intentions behind them (such as constructive criticism) but are not invited—that is, you haven’t been asked for advice or help—that’s different, too. And tougher to figure. Is it none of your business? Are you crossing a line? Are you willing to accept the consequences of crossing that line (for example, so offending a friend they walk away from you)? Or do you think the benefits to your friend, if they are able to listen, outweigh any negative consequences?

Typically you’ll avoid the latter unless it’s a life or death kind of situation. Nobody likes a controlling, meddling busybody. But other people will say, “Hey, this is what friends are for. You’re supposed to have each other’s backs.”

But the best of intentions can backfire on you, and even if your intentions are good, we all know about that road paved to hell. Some people just don’t take well any form of criticism or disagreement with them. I once watched, in a graduate student seminar, a woman (who is a fine writer) burst into tears when the instructor felt her first submitted draft of a story was severely flawed. I’ve seen people in AA meetings get into shouting matches with each other because somebody with some longer term sobriety dared to point out where another member might not be acting well. Heck, I’ve had things I’ve written on this blog taken as criticism when that wasn’t even remotely what I was setting out to do. I just process things and state my truth as I see it, even though I normally try to couch what I say with the caveat that I’ve done the same thing myself or that we all do at times. The way the human brain seems to work is something like this: give someone a list of ten positive things and one negative, and they’ll land on that negative thing like a duck on a Junebug. Yet, with a list like that, clearly no harm was intended.

Here’s a truth: When you open your mouth or pick up your pen or your fingers hit the keypad, the people on the other end can’t know what your intentions are. They will bring their own “stuff” to whatever it is you’re saying.

Sometimes people’s reactions to what you say, when those reactions surprise you, can also be quite revealing.

Is there a moral to all this mental meandering of mine? Not really, except that I’m reminded of the wisdom of the Four Agreements yet one more time. The first two deal directly with what I’ve been talking about here. The first agreement is: Be Impeccable with Your Word. Be aware of their power. Use words judiciously. Speak with integrity; speak the truth as you see it. Don’t use words as weapons.

The second agreement is Don’t Take Things Personally. Always remember that no one does anything because of you. Everyone else does things because of them. Resist the temptation to be affected by others’ opinions of you (or of what you think their opinions may be), because those things reflect on them, not on you. Understanding this will protect you from much needless anxiety or even pain.

As Celie in The Color Purple might say, Amen.


Betty said...

I am constantly quoting the "If you don't have anything..." to my kids. I think once they hear the first two words, I'm tuned out...I'll continue until one day it will click.:-) Great article, very positive and empowering. I just came across another interesting website called Looks Great Naked. It's a humorous blog about overcoming negative self esteem and focuses on loving yourself and being who you are. She shares personal anecdotes and humorous stories on her blog. Nothing like a good sense of humor to help one through life and not take things too personally.

Joyce said...

It's good advice; keep saying it! :)

And you're right that humor is one excellent way to not take things too personally, or even seriously.

I'll have to pop over and have a look at her blog. Thanks for the tip.