The abuse of public language and dialogue in America is discouraging, to say the least. We were reminded of how easy our rhetoric can become inflammatory and demeaning following the tragic events in Tucson, Arizona, with the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s life and the killing and wounding of other bystanders.
Sometimes when the abuse of language is so egregious, you may find yourself longing for the simple words of poets who seem to have more respect for the written and spoken word. So for instance the words of David Ignatow come to mind:
“I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.”
I’m sure you can relate to how easy it is to experience other people’s judgements and expectations of you and how resentful and angry you can become when people distort or misrepresent your words or actions. We can easily make mountains out of almost anything. We interpret, draw inferences, reach hasty, split-minute conclusions and then proceed to broadcast them as loudly as we can in whatever social media we have access to.
But when was the last time you actually asked someone what they meant by what they said? Have you ever even considered asking someone, “What did you mean by your words just now?” “What did you want your words to mean?”
I think you would probably be surprised is someone took this much interest in what you had to say, and you would be secretly thrilled if they then proceeded to listen to you with their full, undivided attention.
So instead of using your words as weapons to find fault or demonize someone else, you could use them to connect and empathize with another’s experience. At the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago (ZLMC), as part of our core curriculum for learning how to live a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity, we teach Nonviolent Communication. This way of speaking and listening can help you connect with others in a way that is mindful and empathic.
You can learn to speak in a way that is pro-active taking full responsibility for the choices you make. You can learn to speak in a way that implies no blame of others and doesn’t imply that they are responsible in any way for what you are feeling. When you speak in this way with others, you are showing them respect. You can also learn to listen mindfully to what others have to say whether you agree with them or not.
When you cultivate empathy for yourself and others, when you open your heart to your own sadness and vulnerability, you can begin to connect with others in a way that is both civil and respectful.
Your words are true when they are proactively spoken from what is alive in your own experience. And no matter how true or right you think your words may be, if they are spoken and delivered to others in a way that implies those people are responsible for what you are feeling, your words are not true.
Living a Zen-inspired life is a way of beginning to trust yourself. You can show up as you are, simple, genuine, sincere and open-hearted. When you speak you can do so without spin or exaggeration.
It’s not always easy to be genuine in this way. It can feel risky and vulnerable to speak about what is alive in you in such an open-hearted way. But you may be surprised by how people respond. When you risk speaking something true, it touches others and helps give them the courage to be more open, present and vulnerable as well.
This way of speaking does not come naturally to most of us. We have to practice it so that we can integrate this skill and make it our own. If you develop this kind of communication skill it can enrich the relationships with those you love and it can help you approach difficult relationships and conflict with more confidence and kindness.
It’s encouraging to see the national conversation take a reflective turn after Rep. Giffords tragedy. It’s encouraging to see national figures using some restraint in their language and showing up for each other with civility and respect. It may not last, so I’ll let the poets have the last word, lest we forget too quickly.
“Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers–
so we live here, forever taking leave.”
Rainer Maria Rilke