WHAT KIND OF FUTURE WILL I CREATE WITH MY WORDS?
Many thanks for your comments in response to my first blog post, "The Days of My Life Did Not Fall Gently," about the personal challenges I faced in telling the truth about myself and my life. Granted, The Queen of Everything: A Memoir doesn't present me in the most flattering light. But it's true, and the truth can be a powerful tool.
Just as mighty is the power of the tongue. The words we speak (and write) to or about others can be equally formidable. There are numerous sections of The Queen . . . in which that fleshy muscular organ which gives us the ability to communicate, utters words that create or destroy, heal or hurt, and form or deform relationships.
I'm not talking about the occasional barrage of four letter words, the kind that represent our thoughts at a thoughtless moment, a time of fight or flight, anger or fear. What I mean is the type of speech that tears people apart and cuts people down. How many families have been divided, how many marriages destroyed, and how many reputations tarnished because of a single word or words that were spoken? Or should have been spoken.
Aren't we all offenders? I've spoken harsh sentiments with the intent of hurting and devaluing another person so that I would feel high and mighty. I've refrained from speaking to others, believing that in my silence I effectively gained the upper hand. I've spoken words that sounded sublime ("bless your heart"), that appeared supportive and helpful, but whose sole purpose was to increase my own power and prestige at the expense of the unsuspecting.
Everyone knows the power of words. Why do we abuse them? Why do we use them as a tool to hurt or harm? Is it because we need to be the center of attention, because we need to be the person with the latest information, because we feel better only by making others look worse?
What is this human need to interfere in the lives of others? Who are we that we so easily stand in judgment over others? Is this not a reflection of our own weakness and insecurity? We criticize without knowing the facts, accept hearsay as "facts," speak about the perceived failures of others instead of their accomplishments, present our accomplishments as more than they are, dismiss those with whom we disagree with a joke, and joke about matters that are serious and should not be diminished.
I recently had a conversation with a family member about my "failure" to care for my late husband, a man who suffered with psychosis and Alzheimer's disease, in a manner that she considered "appropriate."
"You moved your husband into a nursing home to make room for your boyfriend," she stated angrily. "That's why I don't like you, and that's the difference between you and me; I would have hired a nurse and cared for him at home. After all, he was your husband! And he was a Holocaust survivor, for God's sake!"
"But I did have a nurse," I countered. "Sometimes two nurses at once. And a companion. And a day care program, doctors, and prescription medications. The psychosis and Alzheimer's disease simply rendered my husband unmanageable a good part of the time," I pleaded. "Eventually, he reached a point where, to ensure his safety and well-being as well as mine, he had to move to a specialized facility!"
"I knew your husband. He was kind and gentle. I don't believe you," she continued. "You just wanted to move on with your life with another man with no concern at all for your husband!"
"Let me ask you this," I interjected, trying desperately to maintain my cool, "how many times did you see my husband during the ten years he was sick? And how many times did you speak to my husband during that same period? Better yet, how many times did you speak to me during his illness?" The response to each question was silence. Nothing. "So where did your misinformation come from?"
Without benefit of first-hand knowledge, the individual excoriated me. And yet, she continued to acknowledge with sharp words and angry speech that she had all the answers.
Why did I defend myself? Why did I feel the need to explain, and why, oh why, did I not just hang up the phone? Was I hoping the speaker would consider my responses and apologize, blotting out the sting of that hostile slap across the cheeks?
It's been said that "One person's tragedy provides the opportunity for others to cut them into little pieces." Why must we use blunt words with a razor's honed edge? Why must we sing our own praises with too high a tune and why do we believe that blowing out another's candle will make ours shine brighter? Yes, it's true, sometimes our words are careless, and sometimes they are more calculated, but the result is the same: making others less than they really are.
Not long after my late husband's death, another family member wrote, accusing me of ripping off his estate which the individual apparently believed belonged to her. ". . . You very conveniently maneuvered to take as much money as you could from [the] estate. . . . "
I didn't respond. How in the dickens did the individual think a day program, companion, nurses, doctors, and eventually several years of residential care were paid for?
I chose a career in mental health because I wanted to understand myself and others, so at times like these, I remember my clinical understanding of why people do and say the things they do. Many times I've counseled my patients, "Should you ever find yourself the victim of other people's bitterness, smallness, or insecurities, remember that things could be worse . . . . You could be them." It helps.
And yet, there are times when the truth must be spoken, when we have to say what must be said. But is it not possible to say what we mean without being mean when we say it? Even if it's true. People who speak the truth with a bad tongue seek out the imagined weaknesses and faults of people, like the fly who always rests on the dirty spot.
And then there were those who, with obvious frustration and rage at my supposed "mishandling" of my husband's illness, hurled insult after insult my way. One individual in particular ended his abusive tirade against me with these words: "I will try to spend my time with generous, loving people and you may spend your time the way you wish."
What about people who don't speak, those who believe the cold shoulder is the best way to deal with a hot situation? Surely there are times when being speechless is the best response, but in most cases, are we not hiding when we do not have the courage and integrity to speak to another human being, when a simple greeting, an acknowledgment, cannot cross the threshold of our lips? Is it guilt that we cannot deal with, the fear that we might not be as right or as good as we think we are?
As an alcoholic and seriously depressed mom, I subscribed to the parenting theory that to speak words of praise and love wholeheartedly was to lose one's power as a parent, to allow oneself to be weakened and used by one's children. Holding on to power as a parent was paramount.
To withhold words of praise and love, to criticize and condemn one's children so they will be better than they are, to force them to seek their emotional support through meeting the needs of the parent, breeds discontent and poor self-esteem, as well as frustration with oneself and with the world.
Who are we when we can't offer a simple "Thank you," "I love you," "I'm proud of you," "Good job?" Silence, in most cases, is indeed a statement, a loud admission that we are weak and frail human beings, so fragile that we don't even have the strength to verbalize it.
Perhaps now more than any other time of the year, is when we may think about the words that we and others have spoken or not spoken, and the relationships that have been damaged. Do we not have the words to express our regret and remorse? To ask for forgiveness, to begin anew? Have we not all committed damage with our words or lack thereof?
All of the promises I make now, all of the resolutions I utter as I move into a new year are useless, unless the words I speak raise other human beings and repair the breaches in my relationships. It isn't easy to kindly say what must be said. But just as words can destroy, they also bring new beginnings. We underestimate the power of words, their use, abuse and nonuse. As I resolve to create a healthy, happy and healing 2019, what kind of future will I create with my words, and what will my future be because of the words others have created about me?