Be Still

I’m an introvert, but that doesn’t mean I’m actually a quiet person.  The fact that I’m an introvert simply means that I need a certain amount of time by myself each day, and that I can get a little cranky when I don’t get that alone time.  But stick me in a group of people, and my mouth tends to go into overdrive.  It doesn’t even matter if I don’t have something that I especially want to say, I’ll still chatter away until the people around me are beginning to think that they might like a little alone time themselves.

Part of the problem is that when I get nervous, I tend to start rambling on about anything that pops into my head.  But the biggest reason I sometimes talk too much is my long-standing, but misguided, belief that I am somehow responsible for making sure that everyone around me is okay, and that it’s my job to fix their problems if they aren’t.  That’s the reason that I sometimes jump into conversations that aren’t really any of my business, and offer solutions that no one asked for.  It’s annoying, I know, and I’m working hard to stop it.

Breaking old habits isn’t easy, but I am making progress.  Slowly but surely, I’m learning that there are many, many times when the best thing I can do is keep my big mouth shut and just listen.  Listen as someone else talks about their life, their problems, their grief, or whatever they happen to be dealing with at the moment, because that’s their time to talk and not mine.  They aren’t expecting me to fix their problems or take away their grief, they just need a sympathetic ear as they work through their own thoughts and emotions.

Don’t get me wrong, wanting to help other people is a good thing.  And when I’m busy telling people what they ought to do or how they should deal with a particular problem, my heart really is in the right place.  The problem is, I’m not actually helping.  Unless someone has specifically asked for my advice, I need to assume that they don’t really want or need it.  Sometimes the help we want to give and the help that other people need to receive are two different things.

There are words that we can offer that will always be welcomed, and when in doubt, it’s best to stick with those.  Words of compassion and encouragement, such as “I’m so sorry this happened” or “I’ll be here for you” are good.  Once when I was fretting about an upcoming oral surgery, I had a friend look me in the eye and simply say, “You’ve got this.”  Just knowing she had confidence in my ability to cope helped enormously.

IMG_4496So I will continue to work on reining in my tendency to talk when it would be far better to remain silent, and to choose my words carefully when I do speak up.  Because sometimes the best thing to be is simply…..quiet.

Just Say It

478While I was on vacation a few weeks ago, I wandered into a clothing store and had just begun to look through the racks when my cell phone rang.  Not wanting to be rude, I stepped just outside to take the call, standing with my back to the store.  As I was talking, I heard a loud click behind me, but I didn’t realize what it meant until I finished the call and tried to go back inside.  The door was now locked.  I could see the clerk through the glass door, doing her best to look busy over by the register and deliberately not looking in my direction.  I was only on the phone for a minute, but apparently that was all the time she needed to and lock me out.

Fuming, I checked the hours posted next to the door, and realized that the store was scheduled to close in ten minutes.  I’m guessing the clerk was afraid I was going to take an armful of clothes into the dressing room and force her to stay open while I tried them on, which is why she grabbed the chance to lock me out.  But it would have been so much better if she had just told me the store would be closing soon when I first walked in.  That, I would have understood.  And I wouldn’t have been standing on the sidewalk in front of her store, thinking distinctly unkind thoughts about sneaky little sales clerks, and vowing never to shop there again.

Believe me, I struggle with speaking up just as much as everyone else, particularly when I’m not sure how what I have to say is going to be received.  I have wimped out and kept my mouth shut more times than I can count.  But in almost every case where I’ve done that, I’ve ended up being sorry in the end.  Either my silence has led to an awkward misunderstanding, or I have ended up feeling rather bitter and angry because someone else doesn’t understand what I haven’t bothered to tell them.  But when I find the nerve to say the stuff that’s hard to say, I’m at least opening the door for a chance at real communication and understanding.

It helps to remember how much I appreciate it when someone is brave enough to speak up to me.  The other night, my husband and I were driving home from dinner at our favorite restaurant when the manager called.  He wanted to know if everything was alright with our meal, or if our waiter (who was new) had done anything to offend us.  My husband assured him that everything was great, and asked why he wanted to know.  It turns out, we had accidentally left the waiter a one-dollar tip.  We were so glad that the manager knew us well enough to know we would never do that on purpose, and was willing to call and let us know.  We drove right back to the restaurant and gave the waiter his proper tip, even though the manager said we could just take care of it next time we were in.

I know that these examples are small and personal, but I believe that the practice of speaking honestly and tactfully as much as possible is best in most situations.  I think we owe it to ourselves and to others to find the courage to say what needs to be said.  I’ve heard the old saying, “Silence is Golden,” and there are times when it is.  Hateful, petty and spiteful words are much better left unsaid.  But for everything else, real communication is priceless.

Just Listen

I am fully aware that I talk too much.  I tend to over-explain things, repeating myself as if I don’t trust people to understand what I meant the first time I said it.  When I’m nervous, my go-to response is usually to babble on and on about nothing at all, until the person I’m talking to decides that I’m a complete idiot.  Even worse, when someone tells me about a problem, I barely wait until they stop talking before I start telling them exactly what they should do, completely ignoring the fact that they didn’t actually ask for my advice.  So believe me, I understand how much easier it is to talk than it is to listen.

It’s not that talking itself is such a bad thing.  We all have important information to share, and we all want our stories and opinions to be heard.  Sharing our thoughts and feelings allows other people to get to know who we really are, and it’s an essential part of forming the relationships that all people need.  But all that talking doesn’t do a bit of good if there isn’t anyone who is actually listening.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I realize that someone isn’t listening to what I’m trying to say to them.  It makes me feel dismissed when someone interrupts a story I’m telling to launch into one of their own.  And it makes me feel diminished when I share something that I think is important and the other person just says, “Uh-huh,” and then brings up a completely different subject.  Nothing says “I don’t care what you have to say,” or even “I don’t care about you,” more effectively than not bothering to listen to someone.  Those kind of conversations don’t exactly build healthy relationships.

Which is what I need to remember the next time someone is talking to me.  Am I giving that person my full attention, and really trying to understand what he or she is saying to me?  Am I bothering to ask a question if I need to in order to make sure I get what they are talking about?  When our conversation is over, will that person feel as if he or she was truly heard?  Or will they feel the way so many of us do these days:  that it would have been just as effective to talk to a brick wall?

I think that talking will always come more naturally to me that listening, but listening has far better results.  Actually, it’s kind of amazing how much I can learn when I shut up and listen for a change.  I get genuine insights into how someone else thinks and feels, and a chance to develop deeper relationships with my friends and family.  I hear new facts and different ideas, and they broaden my horizons considerably.  (Also, the odds of me saying something stupid go way down when I’m not actually talking.)  The perks of listening are bountiful indeed.

I have come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Because one way or another, it is almost always better to listen than to talk.

Speak For Yourself

One of my many bad habits is spending too much time scrolling through the comment sections on controversial Facebook posts and internet news articles.  I know what I’m going to see will often disgust and anger me, but sometimes I do it anyway, in the vain hope that this time I will finally see some sensible remarks and reasonable arguments.  (I would love to say that this means I’m an optimist, but I think it really just means I’m the sort who tends to repeat her mistakes.)  Still, even bad experiences can be educational and I have learned a thing or two while wading through the muck and mire of on-line commentary.

First and foremost, lots of people simply can’t stand the idea that there are those who disagree with them, on anything, and the very idea of it sends them into a frenzy of self-righteous rage.  Which they then need to express, as often as possible, in case someone missed it the first few dozen times they vented in cyberspace.  The second thing I learned is more subtle, so it took me a while to spot it.  But eventually I noticed that people put way more time and energy discussing what they believe their “enemies” think and feel than they do in expressing their own opinions.

Phrases containing the word “they” dominate the threads, and are inevitably followed by all kinds of nasty statements.  “They” don’t care about the poor; “they” hate America; “they” have no sense of personal responsibility;  and so on and so on.  It doesn’t matter if the people commenting are conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, black or white, urban or rural, they all seem quite sure they know exactly what those “other” people are thinking, and they despise them for it.  Which isn’t exactly a recipe for world peace.

I know that we are living in scary times and that there is much going on around us that can make us feel angry and afraid, and that we all want our voices to be heard.  And we all do have the right to make our voices heard.  But I think that the trick is to stick to expressing our own beliefs rather than trying to put words in other people’s mouths and thoughts in other people’s heads.  Because unless we have asked someone who is different from us what he or she thinks, and then actually listened, really listened, to their answer, the fact is that we don’t have any idea.  I don’t know what your experience is, but whenever someone else tells exactly me what I believe, they are usually wrong.

I think the best thing we can do is voice our own concerns and express our own ideas in the hope that they will make a difference.  And I believe that instead of saying “They believe such and such,” it’s so much more effective to say “I believe in such and such,” because those words communicate rather than alienate.  Mostly, I believe that if we truly want to be a part of fixing this broken world, we need to learn to simply speak for ourselves.

Disconnected

Call me cheap, but on my recent trip to Ireland, I simply turned my phone off rather than risk paying enormous roaming charges while I was out of the country.  Like many people, I’ve grown very dependent on my cell phone, using it for phone calls, emails, texts and even taking and sharing photos.  I was a little nervous about going without my phone for so long  (what if there was an emergency and my family or the dog-sitter needed to reach me?), but my husband did have a phone that he could use to his check emails, and even make a (very expensive) emergency call if necessary.  So, as soon as we boarded the plane for Dublin, I turned off my phone, stuck it in the bottom of my purse, and vowed to just forget about it until I was back home.

I’d like to say that my phone stayed in the bottom of my purse for the entire time I was in Ireland, and that I always gave my full attention to that beautiful and interesting country.  But that wasn’t what happened.  I found myself reaching for it again and again, purely from habit, whenever I had a spare minute or two.  We’d board a train to travel to a new city, and as soon as we had settled into our seats, I’d reach in my purse and pull out my phone.  Then I’d remember that it was off and couldn’t be turned on, and quickly shove it back in my purse, hoping that nobody had noticed what I’d done.  I’d do the same thing when we were seated at a restaurant or pub, waiting for our food to come, and when we returned to our hotel room for a short break from sightseeing.  It was kind of embarrassing.

Eventually, as the week wore on, the fact that I was without a functioning cell phone finally sunk in.  I found myself not reaching for it anymore, or at least not as often.  And gradually, I not only got used to not having my phone turned off, I actually began to enjoy it.  True, my husband and I did exchange a few emails with our son and daughter on his phone (some connections are just too precious to break entirely) but otherwise, I was well and truly out of touch with my normal life connections. And I liked it.

IMG_0292I rediscovered how to just sit still and either think my own thoughts, or pay real attention to what was around me.  I spent the train rides staring out the window at passing countryside, admiring the stone fences, the quaint farmhouses and the little towns we passed through.  When we were stopping back at our hotel to change and rest, I’d actually close my eyes and rest for a few minutes, which did wonders for restoring my energy level.  And while waiting for our food at pubs and restaurants, I listened to the music, if there was any.  If there wasn’t, I spent the time actually talking to my husband, who was sitting so conveniently right across the table. I found myself both living in the moment and truly connecting with my environment, to an extent that I haven’t enjoyed in a long, long time.

Now that I’m back in the states, I have my phone turned back on. My time in Ireland didn’t entirely wean me off my cell phone habit, but it did make me see that I was letting my phone intrude into my personal life far too much.  So I’ve made the promise to myself to leave my phone in my purse, where it belongs, while I’m in the company of people I care about.  And I’ve vowed not to reach for it first thing in the morning, or when I’m just a little bored, or even when I feel conspicuous sitting among a group of people who are all staring at their phones.  Because truly, sometimes it’s better to be disconnected.

But That’s Not What I Meant

When our children were young, my husband and I often struggled to make ends meet on just one income.  As much as I wanted to stay at home with our children, I felt guilty about not working and so I tried to help out by working as a free-lance writer.  I sold a lot of articles to local newspapers and magazines, but I never made much money from any of those sales.  So I was very excited when I signed a contract with a book packager to write a short fantasy novel for an educational publisher for a one-time fee of $2,100.

DSC00181The book was going to be used in high school English classes, even though it was supposed to be written at the fifth-grade reading level.   I had both a word list and a mathematical formula that determined how often the words on the list had to be used in the book, and they wanted the finished manuscript in their offices in a little over three weeks.  It wasn’t easy, but I met the deadline, mailed in my manuscript, and eagerly waited for the first check I had earned from my writing that would actually be in the four digits.

A few weeks after I had thought I would be paid, I was still waiting for my check.  I called the book packager’s office a couple of times to enquire about exactly when I would be receiving my payment, and the answer was always “soon.”  To say I was unhappy would be an understatement.  I was very worked up about the whole situation,  brooding and  fuming,  and often complaining bitterly to my husband.  Finally, he told me to just quit worrying about it.  He was sure that I would be paid eventually, and even if I wasn’t, “It’s not as if that amount of money is actually going to make a big difference.”

I was so stung by that remark that I couldn’t even reply.  I had been so proud of myself for taking on a difficult writing assignment (I had no experience using formulas for word lists or writing fantasy novels) and managing to actually write even a short book in three weeks time while watching two young children.  And although $2,100 is not much for the sale of a book, I had honestly thought it was enough to make a difference in our current household budget.  How dare he just dismiss my hard work?  But I didn’t want to have a big fight, so I just swallowed my pride and pretended that his remark hadn’t cut quite so deeply.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized how completely I had misunderstood my husband’s words.  Even though I what I had heard was that my measly little $2,100 check didn’t mean very much, what he had meant was, “Please stop stressing about getting paid.  It’s making you very unhappy, and it’s not worth it.  That check won’t make or break us financially.  We’re going to be okay.”  I had thought he was being dismissive and unfeeling, while he thought he was being supportive and helpful.

It’s sad how easy it is to misunderstand what people say to us, even when we know someone very well.  I think the problem is that no one, even those closest to us, can ever know exactly what we are thinking and feeling, unless we take the time to tell them.  My husband had no idea how much emotional baggage I had riding on that check (which did eventually arrive), and I had no idea how much my stressing about it was bothering him.

These days I try to take the time to find out what people really mean when they say something that hurts my feelings, because so often that’s all it takes for me to realize that the other person wasn’t trying to be hurtful at all.  And now I realize that I could have avoided a very painful misunderstanding if I had simply asked my husband just exactly what he’d meant when he told me that whether or not I got paid for my book wasn’t that big of a deal…..

The Sound of Silence

IMG_0886.jpgLike most people, I have lots of opinions on just about everything, and I’m only too happy to share them, usually in much more detail than anyone cares to hear.  I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when we were encouraged to “let it all hang out” in “rap sessions” (remember when “rap” didn’t refer to a musical genre?) and I guess I took that lesson to heart a little bit too much.  So believe me,  I really do understand why so many people feel the need to constantly express themselves in almost any situation they happen to be in.  It’s just that I’ve come to realize that there are times when it’s much, much better not to communicate just exactly what we are thinking and feeling.

There are so many ways in which silence can be the best response.  There’s the little things, like when a friend makes what I think is an unfortunate fashion choice, and I’m thinking, “Gee, that outfit emphasizes all the wrong things.”  If we’re not in a dressing room where my friend is still choosing whether or not to buy that particular item of clothing, that’s a thought that is best left unexpressed.  Being a good friend means not letting every petty thought that flits across my brain actually come out of my mouth.

And then there’s Facebook, where I check in daily to make sure I don’t miss out on something important, like a photo of someone’s meal or the latest cute puppy video.  Each time I scroll down my newsfeed, I’m sure to see a post about some hot-button topic that I think is completely and totally wrong.  Even though Facebook thoughtfully provides a comment section inviting me to say just that, I refrain.  Because while I’ve seen far too many heated arguments on Facebook, I have never yet seen anyone change his or her mind just because someone took the time to tell them they were wrong…on-line, no less, where everybody can see it.  Go figure.

The higher the stakes, the harder it is to remain silent, at least for me.  When a friend or relative is telling me about an important problem, my natural reaction is to speak up right away, telling them exactly what they need to do to make things right.  Usually, that’s not at all helpful to the person with the problem.  They need me to listen and provide a safe sounding board while they figure out exactly what it is they want to do about their problem, not jump in and tell them what to do.  Sometimes unsolicited advice just makes things harder, like if I say, “dump the cheating jerk,” when what my friend really wants to do is figure out a way to salvage her relationship.  In that cases, my advice just makes her feel judged, not supported, and I’ve only added to her problems.

I am, by nature, both a talker and a fixer, and in many situations, that’s actually a good thing.  But slowly, I’m learning that there are also many times when I need to stay silent, to keep my advice and my opinions to myself.  There are times when I need to simply allow people to believe things I disagree with, to make choices that I think aren’t wise and to live their lives exactly the way they want to, without the “benefit” of my wisdom.  In short, I need to do my best to keep my lips zipped unless I actually hear those magic words, “and what do you think?”

 

I’d Rather Read About It

A good friend of mine once asked me why I enjoyed reading so much.  “How can you  just sit there for hours,” she wanted to know, “doing nothing but staring at a book?  I just don’t have the patience for that!”  I have to admit that I found her question so odd that I couldn’t think of an answer right away.  Especially since I know that my friend really enjoys watching movies, which the last time I checked, also involves sitting still for long periods of time.  And while I do enjoy a good movie, if I were given the choice between reading a book or watching a movie or television show, I’ll pick reading every single time.

A movie shows me things, in its own way and in its own good time, and sometimes with jerky camera movements that leave me feeling just a little bit motion sick.  A book, on the other hand, tells the story with words, and there are always plenty of details that are left to the reader’s imagination.  That means each of us are going to picture the characters, the action, and the setting just a little bit differently, so that reading a story becomes so much more personal that simply watching the action on a screen.  And I don’t know about anyone else, but I usually imagine the main character looking at least a little like people I know, and that makes them very real.  In a movie, you are stuck with what the actor actually looks like.

IMG_0696Words, if put together skillfully, can convey the subtle nuance, off-beat humor, and shared insights that make reading such a joy.  I enjoy the mysteries of Gwendoline Butler, not so much for their plots (which are good), but for her way with words.  In her book Cracking Open A Coffin, she describes the main character, John Coffin, sitting at a table listening to his companion’s troubles.  His dog, Bob, is underneath the table with his head resting heavily on Coffin’s foot, which is beginning to go numb.  She writes:  “Coffin looked his sympathy and tried again to shift Bob from his foot.  Bob sank deeper down.”  Anyone who has experience with a stubborn dog knows exactly how one can “sink deeper down” when it wants to stay put.  But that’s not something that could easily be shared on a screen.

When I’m reading a good book, I am truly seeing the world from someone else’s eyes, because everything is told through the narrator’s perspective. I know what the character is thinking, not just saying and doing.  I may be a middle-aged, middle class Protestant woman, but after reading Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, I know what it feels like to be a young, broke,Quaker girl from England who is struggling to start a new life in Ohio in the 1850’s.  That’s a gift.  And although I don’t read poetry nearly as much as I should, a good poem can pack so much meaning into just a few simple words.  My college yearbook used these words from Chidiock Tichborne as a memorial to a student who died during the school year:  “My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun.  And now I live, and now my life is done.”  Exactly.

So yes, I know I spend a good portion of my life with my nose in a book.  But there are so many good books out there, and so many authors whose words are just waiting to be read, and so much to experience, enjoy, and learn from them.  Personally, I can think of very few better ways to spend my time.

Missed Connections

Heather and II have to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with social media.  On the one hand, I have reconnected with many old friends since I joined Facebook several years ago, and I love seeing what people I haven’t talked to in decades are doing these days.  It’s great to get to catch up with old friends, to share memories, and to see photos of their families.  I no longer have to worry about forgetting most people’s birthdays, because Facebook is always there to remind me.  I have friends who brag about not being on Facebook, and while I understand why they choose not to participate, I sometimes wonder if they really know what they are missing.

On the other hand, I am still an introvert who needs a certain level of privacy to feel comfortable, and I’m not exactly a master of new technology.  I have a Facebook page, but I don’t have a Twitter account, and I’m not even sure what Instagram is.  In the huge pool of social media, I am definitely staying in the shallow water.

But the real problem I have with social media is with its limitations, and I worry about whether we always remember that a Facebook friend is not the same thing as a real friend, and that a “tweet” will never be a substitute for a real conversation.  On social media, we post about what we are doing, where we are, who we are with, and (oddly enough) even what we are eating.  We share photos of our family and friends, our vacations, or a project that we’ve completed, and that’s all just fine.  But the one thing that I have never seen posted (and I would bet that it’s rarely, if ever, tweeted) is the simple question, “How are you doing?”

And that, to my mind, is the difference between friendship and communication in social media, and friendship and communication in real life.  Social media is all about   showcasing ourselves, and usually in the best possible light.  Real-life friendships require true connections, with the chance to tell each other the hard stuff…our self-doubts, our struggles, our not-so-broadcastable moments.  Real communication involves listening as well as talking, with an honest and open exchange of ideas, and the chance to learn from each other.  Most of the back and forth exchanges I see on Facebook involve hateful arguments about politics and religion, and I never see any evidence that the people writing those comments are actually listening to each other, much less caring about each other.

I think that social media is, by its very nature, usually a bit superficial, and that’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with the casual connections we form there, the chance to catch up with faraway friends, and the chance to quickly and easily keep track of each other.  And sometimes social media is used to tell bad news and to request the prayers and support that help so much during these dark times.   But it will never be a substitute for one-on-one communication, or the real friendships and the deeper, more personal relationships that we all need, and I think it’s important that we remember that.

In the real world, the quality of the friendship matters so much more than the numbers of friends we have, and real communication is never like a Facebook post that is judged by how many “likes” it gets.  Social media definitely has its place, but in my opinion, it also needs to be kept in its place.  And that place should never be center stage.

What Did You Say?

DSC00076Right after we bought our house, my husband and I discussed the remodeling that needed to be done first:  paint the magenta bedroom a nicer color, replace the leaky windows, install new kitchen counters and a deeper sink, etc.  And I distinctly remember hearing him say that he planned to take down the doorway and wall that enclosed the stairs to the second story. We didn’t want to have to open a door to go upstairs, and thought that an open staircase would look very nice.  The next day, my parents and I were trying to carry our mattresses upstairs, and we couldn’t fit the box springs through the doorway.  I said, “No problem, we’re going to take this wall out anyway,” and got a crowbar and knocked a big hole above the doorway so that the box springs fit through.  Honestly, I was proud of myself for fixing the problem on my own, without my husband’s help.

But it turns out that while I thought he meant “We’re going to take that doorway out right away,” what he actually meant was, “Someday we’re going to take that doorway out.”  So he was more than a little surprised to come home from work that night and find a huge, gaping hole above the doorway.  Not happy, but definitely surprised.

I also remember when my son was in kindergarten and had to get to school especially early one morning.  In an effort to save time, I asked him to lay out his clothes the night before, so we wouldn’t have to go through the ritual of deciding what he was going to wear (he had strong opinions about that when he was young) in the morning.  When I went in his room that night, I saw that he did indeed have his clothes “laid out.”  His t-shirt was spread carefully on the floor, and his jeans were placed just below them, with the shirt overlapping about an inch or so.  Sticking out from the bottom of each jean leg was a single sock, and when I looked underneath the top of the jeans, sure enough, there was a pair of underwear.  I thought I had told him simply to select his outfit for the next morning, he thought I wanted him to arrange his clothes exactly as if he was wearing them.

The older I get, the more I realize that there is often a big difference between what one person means to say and what another person actually hears.  It might be because different people assign different meanings to words, or it might be because we all tend to filter what we hear through our own, unique perspective.  I really don’t know.  But I strongly suspect that a lot of the hurt feelings and conflict we experience in our life stems from simple misunderstandings about what exactly we mean when we communicate with each other.

For my part, I’m trying to remember to make more of an effort to make myself as clear as I possibly can when I speak to others, and to take the extra time to make sure I truly understand what others mean when they speak to me, even by asking silly-sounding questions when necessary.  It isn’t always easy, and I’m certainly not always successful, but I do think it’s worth the time and effort.  I know my husband wishes I had done that all those years ago, before I started swinging away with my trusty crowbar.  Because we didn’t open up that staircase for another ten years, and plaster walls are a real hassle to patch.