Words are great things. My stock in trade, they are the most wonderful things ever invented, better even than indoor plumbing. Especially written words. They can communicate so much, convey those things which are almost inexplicable. Personally, I always felt the thousand words to paint a picture was somewhat low, but then I’ve always had a problem with brevity.
Yet, lately words seem to be getting me into trouble. Three separate times in two days I’ve managed to completely mis-communicate my message and/or alienate the person I’m communicating with. But you see, the words are just a means to an end, and in these failures, I’m starting to learn a little bit more about exactly why I like words so much.
The other day, I said something to a friend and I knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say the second I hit the enter button on the chat program. “That was unskillful,” I immediately though. “That’s not gonna get me what I want.” But as the day progressed, and I naturally obsessed over the faux pa, I noticed a deeper issue. By evening I was wondering “Is that really how I judge whether something is unskillful or not? What it gets me?” I was stunned by the subtly and monstrosity of my ego. Sneaky bastard!
What I said might have been exactly what that person didn’t want to hear (or read, as the case may be), but it might have been something they needed to hear. Maybe in the short run it wouldn’t help me get what I want, but in the long run it could bear fruit for them. I hope so anyway, otherwise I’ve been doubly unskillful. The trouble is that I don’t possess the wisdom to tell the difference just yet. So maybe I shouldn’t speak at all? Hmmm...
In my latest column, I let my passion carry me away and distort the argument into something that it wasn’t. My rhetoric got the best of me and worked to turn the lock on the minds I was trying to open through an accident of misdirection. Part of what bothers me though is a word choice change my editor made. He replaced a word with one exactly opposite of what I was trying to say, which illustrated more problems than the poor choice of a single word. It shows that I really need to try reading my own columns and looking at them from the perspective of another person. I need to get outside my own head and try to see it how others see it.
Last night I ditched my design competition team at quarter to one in the morning. At quarter past six they decided to cancel the critique scheduled for nine because not only did they feel we didn’t have enough work done, but that we needed to go back and rethink the entire presentation. They may well be right, but I was particularly unskillful in discussing it with them when I got back in.
What I saw was the same kind of existential panic attack that strikes everyone in the wee hours of the morning shortly before the due date, usually around the 72-48 hours-out mark, which is where we happen to be. This is why I don’t do all-nighters. I’ve seen too many classmates rendered completely ineffective due to exhaustion, stress, uncertainty, and just plain being tired of working on the same damn thing for so many hours. You get too close the project and everything starts to look like worthless gibberish and your ability to execute goes out the window.
So, I reacted not so fabulously of Chris’s declarations of “It doesn’t make any damn sense!”
“It’s not supposed to make any sense!” I yelled back. Fortunately, the moment of incredulity which ensued did halt the tirade and give me room to backtrack and make a more reasoned argument. Apparently, my life philosophy of bewildered confusion was not pertinent to the argument at hand.
Eventually, we were able to communicate like adults, understand each other, if not entirely agree, and reach a reasoned compromise, but it was more painful than needful. The thing is that I reacted to my teammates entirely from the space inside my own head. I didn’t stop long enough to try to understand where they were really coming from.
All three of these instances highlight one thing: EGO! In each one, I was clinging to me. What I want. What I am saying. What I see. And I was getting frustrated with people and reacting badly when they didn’t say, do, or see what I wanted them too. I was using words to unskillfully express the needs of my ego, rather than communicate a genuine message.
So in thinking about how I use my words, the question is not really, how can I say exactly what I want to say in order to get exactly what I want to get. That’s just the ego talking. Right Speech is instead understanding when speech is beneficial at all, to what end, and for whom.
I’ve been thinking I could really benefit from a wordless retreat. No speaking, no writing, no reading, watching television, or listening to the radio. I don’t think it needs to be solitary, but it would be a good way for me to come to a greater understanding of Right Speech. It would be a good way to understand how to connect with other people, the ones who are right in front of us, not the talking heads on the moving picture box, and see the urges behind our need to communicate.
Maybe this summer, and in the meantime I’ll just write about it some more…