Into everyone’s life a Moment must fall. That Moment landed for me during a gathering at a conference on peer relationships – how children made friends and the positive effects of friendships on child development. We were standing around in a large-ish group, not-so-greats, wanna-be-greats, and graduate student hanger-ons. Interestingly, for a group who studied everything from what made kids popular to what created bullies, we were a particularly competitive and mean-spirited clutch of researchers. At least that was how it sounded by our verbal exchanges which was more about seeing who would be hacked to bits next than about discussing how to make school an emotionally safer environment. The irony, however, was lost on me as I jockeyed to be one of the group.
I don’t recall what I said; I’m actually surprised I’ve forgotten. A graduate student I admired made a comment about her work. I snapped back with what I thought was a witty come-back. The stunned silence said otherwise and someone quietly exclaimed, “Oh. That was horribly mean.” I don’t remember much else after that. There was a feeling of shame but more one of confusion. In a whirlwind of cutting remarks and digs at competence, I couldn’t understand why my words were judged so profoundly lacking in kindness. I still don’t know but it doesn’t matter. The lesson was well learned.
It was a powerful Moment in which I suddenly felt the lineage of hurtful speech bearing down on me. I think there are times when we have this felt sense of the stream of all our ancestors. This was one. It wasn’t only about Right Speech – or in this case generations of Wrong Speech. It also brought into high relief the sense of verbal entitlement I had inherited from my family’s way of communicating: a belief that we could say anything about anything to each other and the supposition of love was the license. Of course, if fair play and willingness to take responsibility were part of the agreement, it might (might?) have passed for teasing. But there was a one-sidedness to the Unmindful Speech and a scurrying into denial when someone (usually me) broke down. “Oh we’re just joking.” “You’re too sensitive.”
Back story aside, I felt in that Moment something needed to change, this was not who I wanted to be. I don’t know who that person was who lowered the boom on me at the conference but I owe her my practice. Now, roses don’t fall out of my mouth and I can get pretty foul at times but I notice that edge when my speech is not going to be useful. I’m learning that Right Speech is not about “make nice” words and tones. It’s not about tearing one person down to build up a relationship with another. It’s not about trading integrity for belonging. It’s neither seduction nor collusion.
It’s about speaking to my truth, going to essence, trusting that what needs to emerge will, and not measuring my words against my preferred outcome. It’s also about noticing reactivity and taking responsibility for what happens when highly practiced tracks in my brain send the signals before I can hit “mute speakers.”
Thank you for practising,