The messages we get in life

It is impossible to not send messages; we are all communicating all the time with or without words, directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, with awareness or without awareness.

The issue is that for some people the words that they hear said about them may not appear to have any negative effects; we are all trained to behave, not show our vulnerabilities, especially emotional ones. Sometimes the effects of words are not apparent but often become very pernicious in the long term.

Take my Canadian history teacher. History was one of my more enjoyable subjects at high school. The teacher was a Canadian fellow spending some time in deepest darkest colonial Africa. History classes were great, lots of discussion, lots of analysis, no intimidation from the teacher; he was after all Canadian eh! I loved discussions, spoke a lot and contributed usefully, it came easily. Come the end of the term I opened my term report, gingerly; I knew how poorly I was doing at school. Sadly my history marks were not great (no marks awarded for good contributions to discussions…not good educational practice).

The Canadian fellow had written this in the history remarks block of the term-end report to parents. “GREAT DREAMERS ARE NOT ALWAYS GREAT DOERS”.

At the school in a guidance class I asked the kids to guess; one, what the remarks meant and two, what I had taken the remarks to mean and three, how the remarks might have impacted on me. Their interpretations were wide, varied and covered the full spectrum from good to bad; this fact interesting in itself.

We began chatting about the negative messages that had been sent to them by people over the years.  Although the focus of the conversation was the negative stuff, to be fair the question we were exploring was; “what are the words (that you remember) that have been said to or about you by persons who are close or not close to you?”

After writing the answers in his journal; a quiet time, a pensive almost sacred time for the writer and his or her thoughts, Dan put up his hand and shared his memories.

“I have been called irresponsible, unreliable, selfish…yes I have taken these words on board, it colours a lot of things I do and sometimes the interactions with people that I have.  My sister on the other hand has been told that she is reliable, generous, always gives to others first, sensitive, thoughtful, knows other people’s needs and is selfless…a fine person”.

That must make her feel nice, and make you feel crummy, someone suggested.

Robyn who had been sitting at the back in the corner made a comment without lifting her head from her journal in which she was doodling.

“I’d rather be you than your sister”, she said in a tone of seemingly disinterested aloofness. So cool…. she was really skilled at that.

The other kids swung their heads around to listen to the voice that they hardly ever heard. The silent doodler had something to say, whoa! Pregnant silence, lick your lips anticipation.

“What do you mean Rob? Look at the lousy names he is called”.  Someone retorted.

“Yes, but which is the bigger downer, to be expected to be selfish or to be expected to be selfless? Who is freer? It sounds to me that your sister is now trapped by these seductive words” She said addressing Dan directly. “Who doesn’t want to be seen positively?  Can she now be selfish, not cater to others needs without being called a huge disappointment; ‘we expected so much better of you’. It sounds like she might have started to ignore her own needs. You on the other hand have nothing to lose; there words have already defined who you are and your worth.”

We all stared at Robyn, mouths slightly open. An interesting perspective, someone suggested that Robyn go into the Hot Seat so that we could ask her questions. This often happened when the kids were struck by what someone had said and they wanted to investigate further and also experience the kid who hardly spoke but held our attention when she did. Robyn alas had already returned to her journal to doodle…like a stork flying over dropping a hungry baby and soaring away into the sky without stopping, our Robyn, our fearless lone ranger.

“Ok part two.” I instructed the kids in the guidance class. “Open your journals please, pencil in your hand. Write down the following questions”.

Of the messages I have got from people:

  • Which have I accepted willingly and unwillingly?
  • Which have I declined to accept?

If there are messages from other people that I have taken on board in my mind,

  • Have some been useful to me?
  • Have some been harmful for me?
  • How have these messages impacted on the way I live my life generally?

Sometimes the words said to us may be true and have an effect on us. Sometimes the words said to us may not be true and have an effect on us. It is the intention of the speaker and the method of communication that is important. People will affect others by knowingly saying things that are not true. They will also affect people by saying things that are true, perhaps with or without the intention to harm.

There are two prohibitions in Judaism called lashon hara (evil tongue) and hotzaat shem ra (spreading a bad name). Evil tongue refers to words that are said that are true but that are said for a wrongful purpose. Spreading a bad name refers to words that are said that are not true.

Both are prohibited. But is this realistic?Does it reflect reality? Do we observe people behaving in ways to avoid both of these prohibitions?

And what of the intentionality of the utterer? The Canadian fellow who wrote the History remark; “GREAT DREAMERS ARE NOT ALWAYS GREAT DOERS” (in capitals) could have been saying;

  • I talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.
  • I was too lazy to do the “actual work”.
  • There was a discrepancy between conceptualisation and execution.

Now in terms of the veracity of what he said the Canadian fellow was spot on in his description, let me elaborate eh.

I will not go into intelligence testing save to say that the Canadian fellow, irrespective of his intentions, was describing what he saw.

In this particular case psychometric assessment many years later revealed a significant discrepancy between language/verbal and performance/non-verbal skills, which in this particular case manifested as the strong ability to imagine and talk about the horizon but a weak ability to reach the horizon.

So according to evil tongue and spreading a bad name we might choose to believe that Canadian fellow’s intention was not to slander my name with untruth but to use his evil tongue to say something true. Should he have not said it? It must be said without any doubt. The question is why is it said and how is it said, in my opinion.

One can be rightly frustrated with a child who doesn’t want to share his ice cream with his sister or refuses to help clear the table after supper. The question is how do we say it and what is our intention when we say it? We may want to inform, we may want to help, we may want to express our expectations, we may want to express our anger, we may want to punish and hurt.

Should we not start by being clear and honest as to why we are doing it in the first place? It always helps when saying words to other people if there is a symmetrical authentic power relationship between speaker and hearer irrespective of age or status. After all who is wise? The one who learns from every person.

It was our practice in the Inclusion Programme at the school to try our best to ensure that the child with the learning difficulty getting our support understood what the issues were, how it had affected him or her and why certain things had happened in his or her life that perhaps were not understood, like being placed in a Special School whilst all their friends and their siblings were at the other school all together.

We chose to tell them the truth. We knew why we were doing it. We were very careful. We understood what we were doing. We knew that our words could be experienced as a relief, a motivation or it could be experienced as a burdensome depletion of spirit. Did they want to know and could they cope with knowing? And often would their parents give us permission to tell them, surprisingly often not; protecting them, unresolved grief, shame? Not always clear.

So over the years we had to tell the truth to some kids, in some instances the truth was that they were great dreamers but not always great doers. I hope we did it better than the Canadian fellow.

Back to the guidance class. We were waiting for the end of period bell, silently.

“So?”  I looked around, Robyn was talking to me. “Sorry Rob?” I said.

“So, how did you take the History dude’s comments?” How did I take the history teacher’s comments?

First let me give some examples that clarify why one must be very careful about what one says to others, especially but not only young kids.

  1. Some people will interpret the words in a way that they were not intended.
  2. Some people cannot cope (do not have sufficient ego resources) to hear certain things, this can and often changes over time but the speaker must judge what the hearer can tolerate.
  3. Some will spend years of their lives trying to live up to the words.
  4. Some will spend years of their lives trying to prove the words wrong by defiance and rebellion.
  5. By doing 2 and 3 above, the person may get lost, stray off their authentic path, may lose touch with themselves, ignore their own healthy voices or turn against themselves and others.
  6. And waste a huge amount of time and energy on what is really a red herring.

So how did I take the comments? 4, 5 and 6.