“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” ~ Buddha.
One of the interesting aspects of growing up in Jamaica is that words of advice often come dressed up in amusing and sometimes confusing proverbs and parables. These proverbs may have very interesting origins. To encourage someone to begin small, for it will grow to something big can be expressed as ‘one one cocoa full basket’ (a cocoa at a time will eventually fill the basket). Or ‘many a muckle mek a mickle’ which means essentially the same thing but those strange muckles and mickles come from Scotland! A father warning his children that they are perilously close to danger might say: ‘Chicken merry hawk de near’ (the chicken is happy, but a hawk is lurking close by).
My mother, though not Jamaican, brought her own words of cryptic advice. If I was worried about my appearance she would say: ‘a blind man and a galloping horse’ which was meant to reassure me that no one would notice (especially if they were blind or galloping by!). Even more scary, again if I was obsessing over some cut, bruise or bump that I had sustained, she would tell me ‘It will be a pig’s foot in the morning’. I have no idea how that was supposed to help!
The other day a friend posted a photo of two of her elders, women she held in great respect and love, but are no longer alive, and it made me wonder what happens when my generation are the elders, the crones, the sages. What words of wisdom do we have to share? When my mother was in her late eighties, her niece used to visit her, bringing along a grandchild to meet their ‘Great-Auntie Kit’. In her youth my mother (whose name was Catherine) was known as Kit or Kitty to her family. My father ended that when she turned 40, deciding she deserved to be called by her full name. But the habit lingered. My mother was never quite sure what was expected of her as one of the last of her generation. She felt she had no wise words to share, no family stories to pass on. But do we even know the right questions to ask?
Often when we do have those elders among us, we get impatient with them, as they retell the stories we have heard before. When we are younger, we think we have all the time in the world to capture their stories and record oral histories, and so we don’t pay attention. Then later we can’t quite remember family connections, or ancient traditions. A co-worker of mine once shared that in her family they maintained their oral history by having one of the older generation share their stories with the grandkids whenever they had a family reunion. For African Americans who had endured the Jim Crow era, these stories were both cautionary and historic. Too many people would prefer that stories of men having to be trucked out of town under cover of garbage to avoid being lynched were kept silent.
Being able to communicate is one of the joys of being human. Animals may communicate basic needs, warnings. Birds sing beautiful songs, but who knows what they are trying to say? Dogs may look at you with ‘puppy dog eyes’ or are we reading emotions that don’t really exist? But human beings have developed language, have created a way to document it, can express thoughts, feelings and dreams through words, pictures, and more. A couple of lines on a page can signify a face, or a mountain. A poem can convey a powerful punch in three lines.
How fortunate are we that we have this gift, and how well do we use it? The technological developments of the 21st century have enabled us to send text messages filled with arbitrary abbreviations to convey important facts. And yet a missing punctuation mark can change the whole meaning of the sentence. When I lazily posted beneath the photo of an old friend the comment ‘How are you my friend?’, my sister caught the missing comma that changed a health enquiry into a rhetorical insult!
We have become very careless in how we communicate, and social media has amplified our ability to ‘throw words’. Another old proverb made popular by one of Bob Marley’s songs (and he used a lot of them) says ‘Me throw me corn, me no call no fowl’ which could equate to ‘if the cap fits’. Sometimes we say things that can hurt, and then claim that we didn’t direct them at anyone in particular, so if feelings are hurt it is the listener’s fault for taking offence. And then we add insult to injury by making a half-hearted attempt at apology – ‘I am sorry if you were offended’.
One of the challenges when teaching the subject of mental health, is illustrating the art of therapeutic communication. It seems to go against everything we do instinctively as social beings. Giving advice? Not therapeutic. Using reassuring words? Not therapeutic. Allowing someone to say they are scared or afraid? Therapeutic. Providing information? Therapeutic. Being silent and holding space for someone to talk or not talk? Therapeutic and also known as ‘active listening’. Too often we feel uncomfortable in silence and rush to fill it with meaningless cliches, trite phrases that do not validate the pain another person may be going through.
This Friday morning, as I wake up in a city not my own, I am reflecting on the role of listening. My mother was not one who had the most tactful way of presenting her opinion. And she was aware of her shortcomings, but never quite managed to reign in her tendency to tell you how she really felt. On her desk she had written little messages to herself. One of them said (and I may be paraphrasing here): ‘I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure that you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ (Google says Alan Greenspan was the originator).
Have a wonderful weekend, Family! When you listen, bear in mind that you may only be hearing half of the story. Ask questions, and record those conversations with your elders. One day soon you may have to teach the next generation!