Saturday, January 29, 2011

Choosing words carefully

“Many have fallen by the edge of sword; but more have fallen by the tongue.”

In the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the power of words—both for good, and for bad. Growing up as a gay Mormon, I learned early on to choose my words carefully—to protect myself and hide who I really am, to not draw attention to myself, and having been hurt by the words of others, to ensure I didn’t do to others what had been done to me.

When I was a young boy, I had a dog that I loved with all my heart. She was my gentle, loving, unconditional companion. I remember one day distinctly, playing in the back yard with my GI Joe, and my pup grabbed Joe out of my hand and ran through the yard, me clumsily chasing after her and growing angrier by the second.

Eventually I caught up with her, pulled Joe from her grip, and in my anger unleashed a torrent of harsh, scolding words that fell like sharp knives. What pulls painfully at my heart about that day is the hurt look in my beloved companion’s gentle eyes at the sudden, violent change in me.

This life lesson taught me that words are a powerful gift, and we must choose them wisely. After all, if my little pup could be wounded by words, what do angry outbursts do to the people in our lives who understand every nasty word?

Obviously how we choose our words impacts our relationships. “Saying what we mean in the moment” versus “saying what we really mean” can, over time, erode the core of trust in a relationship and eventually destroy it altogether. Equally important, is how our words affect our own spiritual well being—for I believe we cannot willfully harm others repeatedly without suffering some internal damage of our own, which will eventually move us away from being our best and most genuine selves.

This isn’t easy: we’re all human and fallible, and I am, most certainly, among the least of these. When attacked, I want to return a hurl of verbal assaults—the allure of scoring a momentary hit is a strong one, indeed. Yet, more often than not, I am able to pause when I’ve been hurt. And in that pause, I’m able to think more clearly about what I truly want to say in response, rather than speaking words out of anger that I might regret later. Often, I feel prompted to keep the focus on myself, and am able to be honest about how the remark made me feel, rather than toss another insult back and have the anger spiral into a full blown argument—from which recovery might be long, painful or impossible.

It is not my responsibility to list the shortcomings of my partner or friend, even if I am angry. While I may disagree with some of your choices, it is my responsibility to speak up about that in a gentle way and let my feelings be known through kindness. It is never, though, my responsibility to judge you, to condemn you, to tell you what to do and demand that my solution is the only acceptable one to what I see as your shortcoming or challenge. My job, as your partner or friend, is to walk beside you as you learn the lessons life has to teach you—and to lend you a hand up when you stumble. The true spirit of love we have for one another is kind, patient, and doesn’t demand its own way. It doesn’t scold, condemn, or criticize.

The next time someone hurls a verbal insult at you, I encourage you to pause for a moment. Bring the focus back to you, and how it makes you feel. Give yourself a choice before you respond. You may choose to insult back, you may choose to speak your pain, or you may choose to walk away. But recognize you have a choice. You do not have to perpetuate a hurtful situation by causing wounds yourself. You have the opportunity to realize and understand that how we speak to others tells the world much more about us, than it does about the person to whom we’re speaking.

What do you want your words to tell the world about you?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

To whose voice will you listen?

Over the holidays, I had the chance to visit with an old chum from high school. Like me, she grew up in a tumultuous household, and walked out of such carrying old wounds with which she will likely grapple for her entire time on this earth. One of the outcomes of her childhood dysfunction is struggling with addiction (yes, it happens to Mormons, too!).

She bared her soul to me and shared that as of late, she’d been slipping some, despite what seemed to be her best efforts to maintain her course. Granted, here we were some years older, this woman now with a family, children, a beautiful home, and a husband who loves her very much—yet still bedeviled by a past where unsettling voices never cease to quiet.

I can’t cure my friend, but I can offer her a compassionate ear. I can speak to her kindly, give her gentle encouragement, and help her focus on the things she has succeeded in—like the mere fact that she has recovery is a gift from our Savior, and nothing will take away those years of sobriety. The key, for my friend, was willingness to go back to the very first step, and—like a child leaning on a parent, allow our Savior to guide her easily and carefully back to where she needs—and wants—to be.

As I walked away from that conversation, I began to think about the nature of compassion. Why does it seem relatively easy to be compassionate with someone we care about, yet when we find fault in ourselves, and notice ourselves slipping back into patterns we thought we’d eradicated, we’re the loudest critics in the room?

I was able to experience this first hand upon my trip home. A long forgotten character defect began to rear its ugly head again in my life. At first I ignored it, denied it, and pretended it wasn’t as serious as it was. Soon, my Savior granted me an opportunity to see not only how this behavior was harming me and was leading me where I didn’t want to go, but also showed me how this defect hurt other people—especially those I care about.

Fortunately, I was quick enough in my spiritual soundness to recognize this as a “God Moment:” a turning point, where my Savior knows me well and loves me enough to keep me on a short leash in some areas, and give me opportunities to correct myself. For that, I was grateful.

Yet, despite my gratitude, I launched into a silent campaign of self-criticism, self-condemnation, and self-hatred. How could I have been so stupid to not see this? How could I be so arrogant to think that I could engage in something that was so clearly a problem for me in the past—and get away with it? Moreover, who could possibly love me—my list of human frailties is lengthy on my best day, and I’ve chosen to add to them with poor choices. Who would ever want that as a partner, a friend, or a companion?

Then it dawned on me: I had become my friend back home, who’d reached out her hand to me for a realistic viewpoint on herself. And I, in turn, reached out my hand to another trusted friend. Consequently, I wound up with a more sensible view of myself—a struggling, striving child of a merciful Father who wants me to return to him, and loves me enough to present me with opportunities to do just that. What a great blessing it is to know He loves me enough—and knows me well enough—to have a plan just for me.

That still left me with the uncomfortable issue of that condemning voice in my head. It certainly wasn’t the voice of my Savior—He would never talk to me that way. It wasn’t the voice of my friends or family who love and care about me and want me to succeed. Clearly, the author of that voice was someone entirely different—and someone who has a vested interest in seeing me fail—and in seeing every one of us fail.

You, too, will find yourself in a situation in which you’ll hear that voice—such is the nature of our existence here. This voice will condemn you, criticize you, fault-find, and diminish your hope. It will erode your confidence, esteem, and tell you that you cannot succeed.

And here, you will have a choice. You can entertain that voice—or, you can recognize to whom that voice belongs—for it does not belong to any who love you. It does not belong to any who cherish you as the unique and precious individual you are in the eyes of your Savior, and in the eyes of those who love and care about you.

Upon that recognition, you can choose instead to listen to the voices who do love you. They will guide you, encourage you, and lead you to higher levels of spiritual and secular achievement. It is, after all, through listening to these gentler voices that we are brought closer to being the best we can be, made more genuine versions of ourselves, and move more closely to being the kind of sons and daughters our Father knows us to be.

I will spend more time with myself than anyone else on this earth. Let me be the kind of person I would like to have as a friend—let me encourage myself, be patient with myself, and be as gentle with myself as I would with the person I love the most. Today, I will pay special attention to any voice inside me that speaks lovingly. For after all, that is the one that will help me succeed.

To whose voice will you choose to listen today?