August 26, 2020

Why Niceness is a Cover for our Struggle to Speak Truthfully.

“I love you, but I don’t trust you. You’ll never say anything I don’t want to hear.”

A discussion broke out between our group of old friends, male and female, about who among us is trustworthy and who isn’t. We weren’t talking about keeping secrets, but who would call us on our bullsh*t.

Former Vice President Joe Biden expressed this energetically back in 2012 in a debate with Mitt Romney, “I wish you would just tell the truth…speak with candor!” He called Mitt on his sh*t.

Politics has its uses for frankness and obscuration. But with friends and lovers—how do we proceed?

Should we peacemakers keep the peace or the status quo?

What keeps me from rocking the boat? I try to feel the room—afraid of someone lashing out.

Another motive is being careful with my choice of words. Buddhism recommends mindful speech, and the Bible says, “There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.”

A standard tool of self-awareness is the quotable psychological insight, “Be responsible for the energy you bring into the room,” from Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight.

Another popular life hack are the words of Ian Maclaren, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Diplomatic skills are admirable, but they don’t provide the necessary shifts needed for transformation.

Back to that cool statement my friend said—even though she hadn’t directed her remark at me, I knew it fit. Suddenly, the script was thrown out. It was true. Peacekeepers have a sweetness that makes the listener reach for water. I was scanning faces for hurt feelings while, unsuccessfully, trying to summon a frank response.

But something fresh was happening, even if we were disconcerted.

“If you break open structure, you release energy,” says Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones. Natalie is soft-spoken, but deft with words. She is describing breaking open old patterns in order to allow real emotions to be felt.

Someone can make an observation and it is just that: dead wrong or life-changing.

This is true in the same way it’s fine to ask for a favor as long as we’re willing to receive a yes or no. It’s freeing.

Being gently candid can show that we accept the other person—flawed and amazing—and care enough to risk an uncomfortable exchange.

When we are afraid of relationship breakage or free-floating trauma, we get stuck in relationships, jobs, or general complacency. As a WASP-in-recovery (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), I can testify to this.

I wrote a poem in my early 20s which started, “Curtsies crease me.” This poem described how an upbringing as a deferential and well-mannered person made it difficult to take possession of my ambitions and physical space. It also predisposed me to “feel out” every room before I ruffled anyone’s curtain. Oddly, this trait is also shared across cultural divides.

As night fell on our gathering, we pulled up the edges of the conversation. I felt vulnerable, uncertain, but interested.

The consensus was: “It would be good to find a way to be candid without being hurtful.”

Crazy vague, but it shows we survived.

We started and stated an intention.

“Say what you need to say—even if your hands are shakin'”


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