Speak Gently

img_1716Remember that old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all?”  Personally, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, because I thought that there were times when I just had to speak up, even if what I had to say wasn’t particularly nice.  So when someone made me mad, I vented about it to someone else.  When I saw something that I thought was unjust or illogical, I was quick to complain to anyone who listened, before I even took the time to make sure I had my facts straight.  Often, my words were not at all nice, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times they have come back to bite me in the butt.

Sometimes I found out that the person who made me angry had perfectly good reasons for their words or actions.  Other times I discovered that what I thought was unjust or illogical made perfect sense once I had all the facts of the situation.  People I thought were uncaring or incompetent have surprised me with their helpfulness and competence once they were given a chance to do so.  And in each of those cases, I was left wishing fervently that I had kept my big mouth shut.  Especially when I knew there was a very good chance that the person might discover exactly what it was I said about them.

Even those times when whatever I happened to be complaining about turned out to be true, once I calmed down, I usually wished that I hadn’t been quite so outspoken in my criticism.  Sometimes people are doing the best they can, even if they aren’t living up to my standards, or doing the things that they are supposed to be doing.  Harsh criticism rarely motivates anyone to do better, and treating someone like an enemy can often turn them into exactly that.  In a world where most good things are accomplished through understanding and cooperation, creating enemies is rarely a good idea.

I’m far from a perfect person, and I know there will always be times when my temper gets the best of me and I say things about other people that I shouldn’t.  But I also know that this is something that I really want to work on, because life is so much easier when I don’t have to worry about what I’ve said, because my words were not hurtful.  I can be honest about a problem that needs to be solved, and I can speak against an injustice without being hateful, snide, or smugly superior.  There are many ways to speak the truth, and some are better than others.

We live in a world where technology often spreads our words far and wide, and many of us live in a nation that is going through a particularly contentious time.  Which is why I think that it’s more important than ever that I do my very best to keep my words gentle.  I may not always succeed, but I promise I’m going to try.

Time Marches On

Jones girlsIs it just me, or is the world really changing so much faster than ever before?  It seems that as soon as I master a new technology, it becomes obsolete.  As soon as I learn the latest lingo, it is no longer used, and I barely have time to wrap my head around the latest tragedy in the news before it it is followed by another one, usually even more awful.  I really don’t want to be one of those old people who is always saying, “things were so much better back in my day,” but there are times when I really do feel that way.

My husband and I were eating dinner at a restaurant the other night, and I couldn’t help noticing the table of eight young women who were seated next to us.  (I admit, I am hopelessly nosy.)  They were all dressed up for a festive night out, but their table was eerily quiet, because each and every one of them was staring intently at her cell phone. Of course it was possible that they were all looking something up that had to do with their night out together, but they weren’t.  Craning my neck, I could see that two of them were scrolling down their Facebook news feeds and another was texting a friend.  (I told you I was nosy.)  And they all seemed to think that ignoring the people they were with and looking to their cell phones for entertainment was perfectly normal.

Living our lives on-line is the new normal for most people, even in my own family.  My daughter routinely posts photos of our family gatherings on Facebook, sometimes while they are still going on.  New parents post tons of pictures of their babies and children on social media, usually in good taste, but not always.  I can’t help thinking that the moms who put up the photos of their toddler on the potty are going to have some explaining to do someday.

But one way or another, I am most certainly not living in the world in which I was raised.  And there are times when I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the changes, and feel nostalgic for the “good old days.”  But then I remind myself that change is inevitable, no matter how quickly it comes, and that it’s not always a bad thing.

Families change significantly, with the older generations passing away and leaving us with only the precious memories of our time together.  But that is balanced as the family gains wonderful new members as people marry into it and new generations are born.  The latest technology may be challenging to keep up with, and only time will tell the true effects it has on individuals and society as we become ever more dependent on it and have less and less need to think for ourselves.  But the latest technology also routinely saves lives in hospitals across the world, and enable us to stay in close contact with friends and relatives, no matter where they live.

I may be a bit fascinated by the past, but I sure don’t want to go back and actually live during the time before air-conditioning, antibiotics and automobiles were invented.  In many ways, the “good old days” weren’t always so good.  Like most people, I remember the good things and gloss over the bad.

So when I find myself feeling a bit cranky about all the changes around me, I remind myself that time does not stand still, and never has.  It may well be true that changes are coming at us at a much faster pace than ever before, but that’s not something I can control.  But what I can do is pick and choose which changes I embrace, which ones I simply cope with, and which ones I just plain ignore.  And for me, that makes it so much easier to cope.

Necessary Filters

Whenever I hear the term “personal filter,” I immediately think of the filter that needs to exist between our brain and our mouth.  You know, the filter that keeps us from saying out loud every single thought that crosses our brain, especially if our words can hurt someone else.  It’s what helps us simply think, but not say, “Wow, those pants make your butt look even bigger than it actually is!” whenever one of our friends makes an unfortunate fashion choice.  If we want to maintain healthy and positive relationships with other people, having a personal filter is not only a good thing, it’s also a necessary thing.

But lately, I have come to believe that the filter between our brain and our mouth is not the only necessary filter we need.  We live in an age of information overload, thanks to twenty-four hour news channels, social media, our cell phones and any other screen device that keeps us constantly in touch with the outside world.  And sadly, a lot of the information we receive is not just negative, it’s so negative that it leaves us frightened, angry and depressed.

I was talking to a friend the other day who works for the animal shelter where I volunteer, and she told me that she has begun limiting her exposure to the news, because she already sees the result of too much animal abuse and neglect in the course of her job.  It’s not that she doesn’t want to know what is going on in the world, because she does.  It’s just that she has learned that there are limits to the amount of negative information she can safely process at one time, so she has become intentional about filtering the amount and type of information that she is receiving.  I suspect that is a common trait among those who works in fields where they routinely deal with suffering, human or animal.

I’m not saying that I think we should all “bury our heads in the sand” and ignore the very real problems that exist in the world.  Of course we need to know about problems in order to simply protect ourselves, much less actually try to help with the tragedies and solve the problems.  But I am saying that I believe it is okay to decide how much negative news I can handle at any given time without being completely overwhelmed, and to filter what I watch, hear and read accordingly.

Personally, I have decided to discern between the news that I need to know because it either effects me and the people I know or because I have the ability to do something about the problem or crisis, and the news that is horrible but I know I can’t do a single thing about it.  Even then, I believe it’s is okay for me to screen what I actually see and read about each issue.  I want to know about something as horrific as the Yulin Dog Meat Festival so that I can join in the voices of protest against it, but that doesn’t mean I have  to actually watch a video of a dog being tortured.  Similarly, I can read about the latest terrorist atrocity without actually seeing a photo of a person being burned alive.  I don’t need to see all the details to know that there are horrible things going on that need to be stopped.

Having a filter in place between me and all the troubles of the world doesn’t mean I don’t care.  It just means that I am recognizing the limitations of my own coping skills, and that I respect everyone else’s right to do the same thing.

Pass It On

Recently, I spent a Saturday afternoon at my daughter’s house, helping her paint one of her bedrooms.  I’m one of those rare people who actually likes to paint, so I didn’t mind spending a beautiful weekend afternoon up on a ladder, doing the edging.  Even better, my mother stopped by and offered to pitch in as well by painting some of the trim.  So there we were, three generations of family working together to give a room in my daughter’s house a much-needed sprucing up.  For me, it felt like one of those family bonding moments when the older members of the family get to pass along some of their knowledge and experience to the younger members.  (Which is an increasingly rare thing in theses days of ever-changing technology where the young are usually the ones who teach the old.)

Milentz houseI remember when my husband and I bought our first house and how hard we struggled to turn a very run down “fixer-upper” into a livable home.  We couldn’t have done it without the help of friends and family who loaned us tools (and showed us how to use them), and helped clean up years worth of dirt and grime.  We had a good friend who showed my husband how to build walls, while others helped him assemble our own kitchen cabinets.  I remember clearly how my mother helped me in our overgrown yard, pointing out that the “weeds” I was about to pull were actually just flowers that needed some pruning.  My aunt gave us money to buy kitchen curtains, and my brother-in-law even offered to install a wood-burning stove for us to help with heating costs.  All that support made the process seem so much less overwhelming.

And now that my own son and daughter have bought houses of their own, both of which were fixer-uppers (we never buy anything else in our family), it’s our turn to help.  I paint, do yard work and clean, my husband brings over his tools and shows them how to use them while he’s working on a project, and in the process, we help teach our kids what they need to know to fix up and properly maintain their houses.  Frankly, it feels good to pass along some of the skills, support and knowledge that was given to us.

It’s not that our kids (and their husband and fiancé) couldn’t do it themselves, they most certainly could.  They’re young, hard-working and smart, and what they don’t already know, they’ll figure out.  But I know our help means that they are learning much more quickly, and I believe that they appreciate the support of their family with this important milestone in their lives.  These are the acts that solidify our family bonds, that remind us that we don’t actually have to face every challenge on our own, and that demonstrate the importance of working together to help the people we love.

Sometimes fixing up houses is about so much more than just creating a nice place to live.  Sometimes its also about building memories, strengthening family connections and passing on the best of who we are to the next generation.  It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a paintbrush and a power drill.