Our Words Fail Us, and We Fail Each Other

“War is what happens when language fails.”

— Margaret Atwood

We all fight with someone, even the people we love the most. We fought all the time, nearly daily for some, but it’s rare we reach for physical violence to get our point across. It is common to reach for emotional savagery at the slightest threat to our self-image, our way of thinking, or our sense of control. Real or perceived we are quick to hate, to degrade, and to cut off people around us for the smallest transgression because we have lost the ability to really tell one another how we feel, and to really listen to the feelings of another.

We’ve all utilized violence at some point on siblings or schoolmates. Some have hit their children or had to fight a stranger. Worse are those who have struck a spouse, a parent, an animal. I’ve seen it all and done my fair share too. I have been hurt and hurt others. I have had my sense of safety taken away, and I have felt pride in taking it from others. But I hate that version of me that was so stupid and so weak as to think there was any reason to feel pride in such brutality. I hope to never act so brutish again unless I have to use force to save my life or the life of someone I know.

I’ve come to see violence as something to only be used as a last resort and only when violence is first used on me. I now believe that there is no end to the ways a conflict can be resolved as long as both parties want to. Growth has made me sensitive to the ways I see communication break down around me and the way people have come to see physical violence as the second step after verbal violence is utilized as the first.

Violence is an instinct. Little kids do it and have to be taught not to do it. It is also a learned behavior too. The more they see other people doing it, the more we do it, of course, but I’ve seen babies not yet walking and not yet witness to assault hitting and throwing things out of frustration when they feel their needs have not adequately been communicated.

I work with children in a space that isn’t home and isn’t school, and in this place, they are a little freer, a little more themselves, for good and for ill. I find that at any slight correction, challenge, or frustration they fail to communicate their feelings and instead head right for violence, first verbal and then physical.

I have to slow them down. I work hard to teach them that there are other things to try first. I tell them they can talk to me, tell me how they feel, and I will never punish them for that. I do it because I understand they are being raised the same way I was, to believe that any show of emotion or expression of need is a sign of disrespect. Their feelings are being forced in, and their ability to communicate is decaying from non-use.

As a result, they have no idea how to simply say they are unhappy, that they don’t understand, that they are frustrated or hurt, or to ask for space or time to process what is happening around or inside themselves. They don’t know how to say what they need, and they have no desire to hear what other people need either.

They only know what they have been taught— that respect and understanding come after you have forced it from someone. They have been taught that there is only one right and one wrong and that the one who is right is the one who hits harder.

As we get older, we gain some control, or at least we learn who we can’t hit and who we can. We still don’t know how to talk, and we still don’t know how to understand though.

That’s not to say we are all violent people. No one wants to start there. No one wants to yell, humiliate, or hurt, we do it when we feel we have no other choice and that place is different for us all but none of us have the strength or patience we might have if we’d worked at communication or seen proper examples of it. All of us has given up on someone, some of us have given up on whole groups of people we will never meet because we are convinced that they are incapable of understanding us and us, them.

But there is always a point, and there is always a way, it’s just hard to do, that’s all. Language is a poor way to describe all the complexity and shades of meaning and feeling that exist inside of a human being, but as long as we are each trapped inside of our own perspective and consciousness, barred from the minds of one another, we have to use what we have, our words.

To listen is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy, emotional and intellectual, to hold your own mind back, to trust enough to let your defense down and listen to another. It’s even harder to be vulnerable and ask someone to expend such energy on you. We try once, twice, and the third time we’re done not seeing that the first time we sounded frustrated, the second time we yelled, and the third we used insults and threats. There was never real communication. I see this every day.

No one learns how to communicate rigorously.

No one learns to consider that they are wrong.

No one believes there is honor or pride in giving time and consideration to needs, ideas, or ways of living of others.

The effect is worse in groups and worst of all in nations. Too often violence can seem like the only course of action to take, not last but at all. We work ourselves into a frenzy declaring that our way of life our thinking or land must be defended at all costs. We are right, and they are wrong, and words will do nothing. There is nothing to say to “those people,” they wouldn’t understand if we tried and we will not allow ourselves to be infected, manipulated, deterred, or distracted from our aim. EQUALITY, FREEDOM, JUSTICE, PEACE! Worthy causes to die for, but to kill for?

Maybe. I won’t say I believe that there is no place for violence. Sure, there are wars worth fighting. There are people who can only be saved if someone else was to die, but I don’t see those kinds of wars being fought. What I see when I watch the news is wars being fought that might be solved with listening and an exchange of ideas and empathy, and I see wars not being fought where genocide, mass rape, and the exploitation of children has been taking place for generations.

What I see is nations acting like people, fighting for respect and control and not for equality, freedom, justice, and peace.

What I see is here at home a divide furthering between ideologies because talking is exhausting and listening is just too hard. I see people who are sure they are right, that there is no other way to see it, and that communication is no road to resolution. I see tension building and a canyon-sized divide between the purity of each sides way of seeing the world. No one is willing to build a bridge. The bridge builders of the past are disillusioned, and the would-be builders can only see what the other side won’t do.

So, violence is quickly becoming all that is left because we’ve not built the strength nor the desire to keep trying, again, and again, and again.

We’ve not been raised to believe that people can come around by words alone. We’ve not been raised to believe there is a middle ground in that canyon separating us from one another. We’ve not been raised to understand that people are mysterious and complex and in need of love and understanding the same as us. We have not been raised to see each other as equals only as beings to dominate, manipulate, and use for our own emotional ends. We’ve not been taught that words will get us what we need.

The average person isn’t out there beating people up and humiliating them, but we are internalizing and perpetuating the same way of looking at the world and thinking about one another that leads to violence on more massive scales. We are protecting and excusing the violence that breaks out on individual levels seeing it through our own upbringing and justifying the pettiest reasons.

I just want to see us all try another way and try a little harder.

Try being patient. Try being quiet. Try being open, sympathetic, and kind.

Work the muscles in the mind that express and understand. Learn how to use your words and learn the meaning of words that other people use. Consider that you might be a little wrong and that the people you have written off might be a little right. Not just the people you know, but people half a world away too. Think about what war is and what it’s cost is worth. Teach your kids to do the same and teach your loved ones through their interaction with you. Take the time communicate. I promise it is no waste.

I’m talking to all of you, myself included. I am talking to all sides of the issue those who have never listened and those who have tried listening so much they’ve given up hope that it works. I’m talking to you.

I’m talking to us here and now and to everyone in the future because if we don’t learn to sharpen and strengthen language, make it better and make it work nothing will change.

***

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Featured photo is by Georgia National Guard from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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It Begins by Seeing Each Other as People

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

— Gwendolyn Brooks

We live side by side. We go to work together, shop together, sit next to each other in movie theaters and walk past each other on the street, and we don’t see each other at all. We don’t know a thing about our neighbors or the people living in the same spaces as us. We won’t look the cashier in the eye. We don’t have the patience for other drivers on the road. We don’t care about our coworkers weekend, even if we ask. We don’t want to help. We don’t want to hear it. Hell is other people, right?

And that’s just the people we see day-to-day. Then we get online, on Twitter, on Facebook, on our blogs where people are even people anymore. We jump into the comment sections under YouTube videos and articles on our preferred news and opinion sites. We turn on the TV and see nothing but violence and feel fear.

Soon other people aren’t even people anymore. They are obstacles and annoyances. They are different and dangerous. They are the other side, the enemy. They think differently than us, they feel differently than us and anyone who is different from us doesn’t matter. They are wrong. They aren’t worth the time.

Indifference grows to hate, and people never run out of reasons to hate. They hate people because they’re brown, because they’re femme, or because they’re queer, or disabled, or transgender, or Muslim, or poor. They hate people who look different, think different, worship different. Eventually, the hated ones grow bitter, and they hurl hate right back in return. The hate mixes with fear, and they fight, some with fists and guns, some wielding the law.

I’m angry, and I am full of hate too. It grows every time I turn on the news, and I’m tired of it. But as angry as I am, as scared as I am, and as much as I want to shut out half of the world, and as many solid reasons as I know I have to do so, I’m not convinced it’s the right way. I’m not sure that isolating myself from the people who I don’t like, that I don’t agree with, that I don’t want to acknowledge, dignify, or give space to will make the world a better place. I’m not sure that going on hating all those people will change them.

I know what they think of me, and convincing them otherwise is close to impossible, but every so often one is converted, and it happens more and more every day. It’s my job not to just stand up to them, but to convince them, help them, educate them.

To open yourself up this way is exhausting, I know. To have to explain yourself your needs and to in turn give space in your life for such hate to be lobbed back at you hurts. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for anyone all the time. We have to take turns. We can retreat to safe spaces as needed, but we can’t stay there forever. We have to find a way to work it out no matter how hurt and angry we are because if we don’t both halves of humanity will go on fighting and living this double existence side by side and nothing will ever get better, and no one will learn anything.

But is that so bad? Is it really your job to care what people who hate you or are ignorant of your perspective think? Is it your job to educate them or drag them kicking and screaming toward compassion and cooperation? No, of course, it isn’t. Giving them space in your life is a purely personal decision but I think it might be the best thing to do if we want to make the world better. We are all we have, and I think it’s important we all care about each other, whether we agree or not. That doesn’t mean I accept your thinking, or that I will compromise my values. I can fight for whats right and still let you know I care about you. So, it’s not your job, but it is your problem. It’s all our problem to solve.

And solving it begins with seeing each other as people.

Both sides have to begin by understanding that we are all much more alike than we are different and nothing that any human feels or believes is beyond another human’s understanding. It takes stepping into the shoes of another and imagining their whole life had been your own. You may think and believe the same that they do now, and if you did, would the way you isolate and shame them make you change your view if you were them? I doubt it.

To think we can go on making progress with the world split and going for one another throats every day is delusional. The reality is someone is going to have to find a way to take the first step and the longer we tell ourselves that to do so is to compromise your integrity the further we drift from each other and the harder it will be to reconcile, but it will have to be done one day. We are going to have to care. We are going to have to stop seeing each other as the enemy.

We are going to have to start seeing each other.

We are one country, and one world, and in this vast, cold cosmos all we have is one another. Each of us is precious, even those among us who we disagree with. Even those we find ignorant and stubborn and who put themselves at the center of the world to the exclusion of all the rest, even they are rare and precious. Like Carl Sagan said “If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” So, yeah it should matter to you who hs healthcare. It should matter to you who has food, who has a job, who has a home, and who doesn’t. It should matter to you why people feel the way they do, hurt the way they do, and fight for the things they fight for. It is your problem too!

Your fellow human beings, whether you like them or not, agree with them or not, understand them or not, they are your responsibility.  We have to learn to get along sometime, so let’s try a little harder today, and a little harder the day after that. No matter your race, your class, your nationality, immigrant status, gender, sex, or sexuality, no matter how you were raised or what you believe, start by seeing each other as people.

Start by seeing each other at all.

***

Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Featured image is by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

Be Kind Instead of Right

Hello, dear readers and happy Monday! I know I know, Mondays aren’t happy. Mondays are for being tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting nothing more than to crawl back into bed and escaping the world.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a fresh start, every week. Mondays are our do-overs, our reset buttons, our first days. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

For me, this Monday is off to an about average start. I ran a bit late, I had a meeting, I have a lot on my mind, but I’m motivated. I feel good, but I could use a dose of caffeine to keep the momentum going through lunch. I just have to get through this week. After that, I’ll have nearly two weeks off of to do whatever I want. I can do this.

“I am practicing being kind instead of right.”

— Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

One habit I have been working hard to break is my need to be right all the time. I used to argue a lot. I used to but in and correct people, give my two cents, and I kept talking until the other person yielded and admitted I was right. I worked hard to win. I dropped facts, science, statistics, and lead people along the lines of my own thoughts and feelings to convince them. No matter how angry the other person got, no matter what insults they threw or what they said I kept at it.

I thought I was helping. I thought I was teaching people. I thought people would appreciate what I was doing. I wasn’t helping, though, and I doubt anyone one looks back and thinks fondly on that time that short girl berating them about evolution, healthy diets, the meaning of obscure words, or their brand of politics.

Looking back I am sure I didn’t improve anyone’s life by acting the way I did. When has forcing knowledge or opinions on anyone ever made them feel better?

Even though steered clear of direct insults, I often took on a condescending tone. I talked down to people. I laughed at them. I talked to them like they were simple and stupid. I thought them all backward or falling behind. I didn’t know it then, but I thought I was better than them too. I thought my love of science and my curiosity meant I had a right to educate and dismiss people. I thought I had a right to force everything I’ve learned onto the people around me. I was not acting in kindness. I just wanted to be right, even when no one was arguing with me.

What made me unkind was that I never just listened. There was never a time that I wasn’t judging someone or trying to change them in some way. I didn’t make people feel smart or important. I was pretty awful sometimes.

For awhile now I have been trying to do things differently. I have been trying to listen. I have been trying to let other people teach me things. I have been trying to keep my mouth shut every once in a while.

I can tell you that not only am I sure that the people around me feel better, but that I feel better!

It’s a huge relief not to feel the need to force myself on people. It’s nice not to spend so much energy on trying to bend people in the direction I want them to go. It’s nice to wait until someone asks me what I think. It’s nice to just accept people and let them bend me a little from time to time.

This week, let people be wrong, let yourself be wrong. This week, just accept people. Listen a little more, keep your opinion to yourself, and stop trying to force people to think, believe, and know what you do.

Try not to think of people as stupid just because they see things differently. Try not to talk down to anyone or dismiss their perspective.

This week, try being kind instead of right.

***

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Featured image via Unsplash

Never Say Never, Never Say Always

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the beginning of another work week. If you are anything like me, Mondays are hard for you. It’s not easy to adjust yourself from the relaxing weekend to the rise and grind mentality of Monday thru Friday.

You can find yourself feeling tired, depressed, and disappointed, but that’s no way to live. Instead, let’s try something new. Let’s think of Mondays, not as the first of five miserable days but the first of five days we get to make all the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world around us. Mondays are a new chance to get it right.

My Monday is a dreary one. Here in Colorado, we have cloudy skies, fog, and cool temperatures. I went to bed later than I meant to last night and the lack of sleep and horizon to horizon cloud cover means I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open.

“I never say never, and I never say always.”

// Grace Kelly

This week I am going to try not to use the words never or always unless I am 100% sure I really mean them. I am under no circumstances to use those words when I am angry or sad. I’m especially not to use use them when talking about another person’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Those words on their own aren’t so bad but the mental states they induce or perpetuate are. Those words do not allow us to see or accept the ever-changing and often cyclical nature of reality. Those words and words like them keep us from seeing the big picture or moving forward.

How many times have you said things like:

  • I always do that,
  • Bad things always happen to me,
  • I am always messaging things up.

How many times have you said things like:

  • They never listen to me
  • They never care about my feelings
  • They never see me.

Saying never or always traps us. When we say we never or always we forget that from day to day we change and the world around us does too. When you say never you can’t see that things are good sometimes and they will be again. When you say always you can’t see that things can’t always be good either.

You can’t see that the ups and downs are normal and that you are not, in fact, getting “more than your fair share” of the good or the bad. There is always someone who has is bettered, and always someone who had it worse. There have been times when you yourself had it better or worse than you do now.

Do not give in to feelings of hopelessness or forget that good times and bad times are always on the way. People get better and people get worse. Remember to stay present and see the good and bad you are given in life as it comes and goes. Use other words to describe how you feel.

  • This is happening more than I’d like.
  • It feels like this rarely happens.
  • I am frustrated I’ve been unable to do this lately.
  • I am frustrated that you and I have been unable to agree on this so far.
  • I’ve been needing this lately and I haven’t been able to get it.

These kinds of phrases allow for change. They allow you the opportunity to see a solution. They allow you to keep lines of communication open with yourself and with others. They allow you to make your life what you want it to be, eventually.

Everything is temporary. There is no never or always, and that’s a good thing :)

***

Featured image: Lake Tahoe, United States by Rosalind Chang via Unsplash

Make Your Conversations Matter

Hello and happy Monday dear readers! I hope your work week started with positive vibes and an air of productivity. If not, remember that you can always hit the reset button. I promise you, Mondays are not the worst, it is only that our attitude about them needs tweaking. Mondays are for new chances and new opportunities. Mondays are a new chance to get it right.

My Monday is neither good nor bad. I am tired and I woke up a bit late but I had the foresight to prepare much of what I needed last night. Unfortunately, I also went to bed way to late but I slept well, which is rare anymore, and I am in a good mood. I think I can get stuff done today.

I hate small talk. I want to talk about atoms, death, aliens, sex, magic, intellect, the meaning of life, faraway galaxies, music that makes you feel different, memories, the lies you’ve told, your flaws, your favourite scents, your childhood, what keeps you up at night, your insecurities and fears. I like people with depth, who speak with emotion from a twisted mind.

// Breagha Young

Last week I found myself feeling very annoyed by people who would interrupt a book I was reading, a podcast I was listening to, or a blog post I was writing to talk about nothing at all. It was all small talk and I hate small talk. I hate conversations that aren’t intended to do anything but fill up empty space. I hate to be interrupted for waste time pretending we are getting to know each other.

I don’t mean to sound anti-social, I’m really not, I love talking to people, I just want to talk about something meaningful. People don’t like to do that, though. To ask personal questions is rude and over time the realm of what is personal grows. Anymore I feel like talking about anything more that weekend plans and the weather are too deep for most.

To be perfectly honest I’d rather not talk at all than have one more person tell me the weather is gorgeous and the weekend was too short. I look around and I feel like I am surrounded by robots. I feel like my mind is the only one that exists. They say others do but what evidence I have is wanting.

So, this week I am going to avoid small talk like the plague. Not by checking out, no. This week I am going to ask people real questions and give real answers. I’m going to give details and ask for details. It doesn’t have to be anything too drastic. Instead of asking “How was your weekend?” ask “What did you do this weekend?”. Subtle but the answers will be very different and that little detail will make the conversation worth your time.

I often wonder how we can be on the internet all day liking and commenting, replying and sharing, and yet we can’t even talk to each other face to face. I often think it is because the safety of the anonymous internet has given us all a little bit of social anxiety. We are always trying to escape each other and do the bare minimum until we can get back online.

But the bare minimum is mind numbing. The bare minimum is a waste of time. For a change let’s talk about something more. Let’s talk about something controversial. Let’s talk about something important. Let’s share some opinions, even if we don’t agree. Let’s get to know each other a little, yeah?

If not, leave me in silence. Let me read my book, listen to my podcast, or finish my blog posts, please. I’d rather that, I’d rather anything at all, than any more small talk.

Featured image via Unsplash

You Will Be Misunderstood

Hello and happy Monday dear readers. I hope your day started off on the right foot, mine has been bumpy since I woke up. I was running late, I forgot half of what I needed for the day, and I have more to do than I have time to accomplish. It’s going to be rough but I’ll do my best to stay positive, or at least remember that if sometimes, just making it to the end of the day is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

This week I am thinking about how much time we all waste being frustrated with each other over misunderstandings. I think most conflicts are misunderstandings and most could be resolved if people realized that it is necessary to explain yourself sometimes and people should not just know what you meant or what you want.

I have a friend who thinks that if you don’t understand what they are saying it is because you are not listening. This can be incredibly frustrating when you are in fact doing the best you can because you really do care and you just miss her meaning. My friend just doesn’t understand that language and meaning are not black and white and that she must try a little harder to get her meaning across.

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

// Karl Popper

Language a slippery thing and humans, the inventors of it, are notoriously horrible at using it. Couple that with all the subtleties of tone, emphasis, and body language, plus whatever is going on the head of the person you are talking to, and you can see how being understood at all is a miracle.

I have noticed people have very little patience for being misunderstood. We want to say as little as possible and we don’t like to repeat ourselves. We lash out at another person for taking our words the wrong way and ever even consider that half the fault might lie with us. You may have to elaborate, you may have to explain, you may have to try more than a few times, but stay calm and don’t give up.

It takes two people to give words meaning, the one saying and the one hearing. Think of any interaction as two (or more) people working as a team to give words meaning. You cannot do it all on your own and you cannot make it all about you.

Don’t get defensive, don’t get frustrated, that only makes things worse. If you yell or give up the people around you will too. If you are misunderstood, if your words are taken the wrong way, if a mistake is made because someone thought you wanted one thing and you asked for another, just stop, start over, and take the time to try again. It won’t cost you much and, in the end, your relationships remain intact and you feel better for it.

No one is an island and you cannot pretend for long that connecting with others is not important. Just make sure you are doing your part before blaming someone else for misinterpreting your words.

Featured image via eflon

Patience Is the Goal

NaBloPoMo Day 1: Do you find it more helpful to talk things out or to let things quietly rest?

I immediately thought of me and Chardonnay. The way we argue, they way we try to work through our issues is completely different. I like to talk about things but I also like to talk too much. I get emotional quickly and cry and all I want is for what is wrong to be fixed. I think talking it out and trying to understand each other is the best way to work anything out. Chardonnay is the type to let it go and work out her feeling within herself. The more she is made to talk the more frustrated she gets. It’s not that she never wants to talk about anything it’s just that she needs to do it in her own time. Sometimes all she wants is to say she was upset about something and have it NOT turn into a conversation.

It’s hard for us to communicate effectively sometimes. I think it is remarkable that we are able to work anything out at all considering we deal with problems completely differently. We work hard to get past our differences and find some kind of common ground. She has to try to talk and I have to listen when she says she needs a break. If she doesn’t talk then she puts up a wall between us and that affects our relationship negatively. If I don’t give her a break then I don’t make her feel comfortable to talk to me and she won’t try harder to do so.

Most of our arguments seems to be about petty things. I often wonder if most of our fights have to do with much bigger issues than what we think we are arguing about. I read a post on Zen Habits awhile back titled “How To Make a Marriage Work“. In the post Leo talks about how “most disputes and other conversations are about two things: do you care about me, and can I trust you.”. I think this is true for me and Chardonnay. Everything is about those two things. Having accepted that I have tried harder to let her know that whatever it is she is upset about, she can trust me and I do care. I try my best to let her know that that is what I need too.

I used to think that my way was the right way. I used to think that talking everything out right away was what everyone should be doing. I admit I judged Chardonnay harshly for not being able to communicate the way I did. One day I realized I had been wrong. Everyone deals with things in their own way and Chardonnay needs to time to process her feelings. When she is ready to talk she can tell me exactly how she feels and what she needs from me. I may talk about my feelings right away but often times I am so mixed up and emotional I may not know exactly how I feel or what I need.

So I guess both ways are right. We are both right, we are just different. We still have arguments, every couple does, but things are getting better. We just have to be patience with each other. That is the goal now, patience.

NaBloPoMo September 2014