Insight: How to undo a lifetime of training in verbal harm.

I've trained my entire life in how to harm others with words. For years, starting at a very early age, I've watched those around me fire barbs at each other, often growing more and more extreme. I paid close attention, and unwittingly learned important lessons when it comes to harming others vocally.

And so I've become very good at it.

Not only have I learned to harm, but, on occasion, it's become almost a reflex. Especially when I myself have been feeling bad, my finely honed reflex is to strike, and strike hard.

As I walk down the delicate path of non-reaction, I find too that a more subtle error has crept in: sometimes I will convince myself that my words are designed to help, not harm. There are times when strong words are necessary to help another. But I have very little practice there, and more often than not my intention was not positive.

It is good that I'm aware of this, because that's the seed of change. But it will be a long struggle before I can fully unlearn this terrible habit. How can I do that? Well, the tool of detachment and observation comes in rather handy: the barbs will arise, unbidden, and one can observe them. If one senses even a trace of negativity, one can stop and ask the question: would speaking these words help or harm the listener? One can resolve that, if it would harm the listener, that one would remain silent.

How does one know if the words would cause harm? Well, strictly speaking you can't know. But I've found, more and more, it's really useful to just ask the question. It's often the first step in seeing things from the other persons perspective, and indeed, from your own. In any given moment in the mundane world, it is possible to ask, "what do I want out of this situation?" One's actions either contributes to, detracts from, or is neutral for achieving that goal.

Is there a bright side? Absolutely. As a keen verbal warrior, I've noticed that the most painful barbs are those with the most truth to them. That means that these mean and hateful things actually have a core of legitamate insight into the mind of another. If the negativity can be stripped away, what's left is just Insight. Devoid of connotation, the qualities of another are simply qualities - neither weakness nor strength. Cast in the harsh light of a verbal arrow, qualities become only weakness, which is a narrowing of perspective which is a key aspect of a hateful mind. Moving in such a fog, is it any wonder that hateful minds are so miserable?

Of course, this process occurs very quickly - there is pain, the words form mentally, and then are spoken. How can such a fast process be suspended and observed? First, by practicing observation itself. Vipassana is good for that. The other is to accept that, as part of the observation of those acid words, this implies that there is something wrong inside. There is some internal weakness which is showing itself. That understanding gives a boost to one's motivation, "Not only am I avoiding harm for others, but I'm learning about myself which will help me to grow stronger."

Last but not least, how can the Barb, now stripped of hate and turned into Insight, be used? I think the answer is "It can't." The reason is that it's just too risky. Anger leaves a residue that can be difficult to remove completely, and usually silence is the way. Even if the anger is totally gone, the Insight is not likely to be useful as words: most people don't like to hear themselves described in anything less than a flattering light. It can be interesting, however, to remain silent and hold onto that insight to see if it's true, and to see if maybe you can get the person to see it themselves. This is much harder than it sounds, because my training has been to share thoughts immediately. And too it can take a measure of creativity - a lot depends on the situation. Action can be anything from telling a story, to touching the person, to remaining silent, to buying them something. But it's fiercely effective if you can hold your tongue and take rational action designed to help someone else. (It also feels really really good. The mind, now consciously acting for the benefit of another and in a very concrete way, relaxes in some strange way and really starts to enjoy itself. I know, it's totally counter-intuitive. But hey, I didn't design the mind so don't blame me! :)


Alexandra said...

There is some truth in the old adage, "If you can't say something nice..." Words are real. When you say something or write something or even think something with words, you are making it real. You are giving it substance. If I tell you that Bob hits his wife, I have defined reality, because now, no matter what you KNOW is true, those words are tickling the back of your mind every time you see Bob. I have created a reality where Bob beats his wife. Words are powerful and dangerous because people don't consider them to be so. People use words without thought behind them and change the world. We use words to judge one another and make ourselves better than we are. We use words to make wrong things right. With enough words you can excuse nearly anything.
But conversely, words keep us prisoner inside ourselves. We can only communicate to the extent which language gives us and because of this we can't always make important connections with those around us. We place labels on ourselves and others which define us and prevent deeper understanding of one another. You may imagine that you have had a deep insight into another person, which, if you could move past layers of words between you, turns out to be yesterday's news. Just because your experiences and perceptions and intuitions tell you something, doesn't mean that it is true, but the words that live in your head only let you see one point of view.
Because I have some understanding of the power of words on the world around me, I try to live by a few simple rules;
1. Never offer unsolicited advice. If someone is ready to hear your insights, they will let you know.
2. Always preface advice with a qualifier. "This is only how things look from my POV, but..." "This is what I think.." No matter how smart you think you are, you still may be wrong.
3. Scan your words before you say/write them. Is what you are saying what you really MEAN? How would you feel if someone said the same thing to you? Could you phrase that a little better? Defensiveness is the enemy of communication and offensiveness breeds defensiveness.
4. And the last and most important rule; NEVER EVER EVER say something that you can't take back. That nasty little thing about my personal life that you had to "get off your chest"? For the rest of your life I will never look at you the same because every time I see you, those words will be crowding the space in my head that is put aside for you. There are few "harsh truths" that ever do the listener any good, and it only takes a few poorly chosen words to wound someone forever. Oh, and in case you were wondering, all of this was just how I see things, and I could very well be mistaken.

josh said...

Thanks for the comment, Alexandra! There's some good stuff in there; but I wonder, is there any word that we can truly take back?

Alexandra said...

Nope. It was just convenient phrasing. Everything you put out there is forever somewhere. But people are less likely to populate the space in their head for you with kind words than with unpleasant ones. Someone who has been nice to you is remembered differently than someone who was mean. I have lots of friends who are nice to me and in my head they are a warm rosy place, but the people who have been truly cruel and said things that went too far... Those places are always haunted by the echo of those words. After someone vocalizes something that wounds you that deeply, you may forgive and move on, but you can never forget that they are capable of inflicting that sort of pain, and it colors your interactions with them.

It is a sad statement on the world, but a cruel word will always be remembered longer than a kind one. So when I say "Something you can't take back," what I really mean is something you wish you could.

Alexandra said...

PS I like yer dog. Aussies are the best!