Saturday, May 04, 2013
One of my favorite jokes:
A man is sent to prison for the first time. At night, the lights in the cell block are turned off, and his cellmate goes over to the bars and yells, "Number twelve!" The whole cell block breaks out laughing. A few minutes later, somebody else in the cell block yells, "Number four!" Again, the whole cell bloock breaks out laughing.
The new guy asks his cellmate what's going on. "Well," says the older prisoner, "we've all been in this here prison for so long, we all know the same jokes. So we just yell out the number instead of saying the whole joke."
So the new guy walks up to the bars and yells, "Number six!" There was dead silence in the cell block. He asks the older prisoner, "What's wrong? Why didn't I get any laughs?"
"Well," said the older man, "sometimes it's not the joke, but how you tell it."
It's true that some things don't need to be spoken. It's also true that this happens more and more as a couple stays together. Ed and I, married almost 39 years, can certainly finish each other's sentences and sometimes we will encounter a situation or hear or see something and I just know that we are remembering the exact same shared memory and we will laugh or tear up spontaneously in response to that without a word being spoken by either of us.
I've said and not said a lot in my life so far. Just like actions, some of the things I've said I'm happy I got to say them. Others, I cringe when I think about them. Then at other times, I should have spoken up when I stayed silent.
Communication is a strange thing. Language can hurt or heal and so much of it is so impulsive that we rarely take a prudent moment to realize the long-lasting effect of what we are about to say.
My niece Kate, like many others her age, is graduating from college today in Tennessee. At graduations all over the country, speakers (famous, infamous, and relatively unknown) are gearing up to give the new graduates the wisdom of the ages, or at least of the moment. I often wonder what I would say to Kate and her younger sister and our grandchildren and everyone else growing up in this wild world if I had only a limited time to impart advice. So I wrote her a short letter about my mantra, the Serenity Prayer, which I've quoted in this blog many times - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. That's a solid foundation on which to make decisions in life.
What I would also tell these young folks is this: Remember, life has no rewind button; speak carefully. I gave a children's sermon once about feathers from an old Jewish tale, and it went something like this: A rabbi took his students out into a large field. He asked his students to distribute a load of big rocks across the field, which they did. Then the rabbi asked them to gather up the rocks that they had just distributed. With effort and time, they managed to find every rock and bring it back. Then the rabbi produced bags of feathers and asked the students to scatter them over a great distance. The students did. Then the rabbi asked them to retrieve each and every feather. They tried, but had to return to the rabbi, saying that it was impossible because so many feathers had been carried off by the wind and could not be gathered back into the bags. The rabbi explained that words we say are like feathers - once said, they can never be unsaid and can never be placed back into the bag. So say them judiciously.
The things I most regret saying, of course, are hurtful ones - words said in the heat of an argument or in a moment of hopelessness or in an escalating time of pure frustration and impatience. Those words were heard and understood, and they will probably be remembered. Oh, we can apologize, for sure. We can try to make it up, which is an admirable step, but in the end, words were said that, like the feathers, are forever blowing around.
While I'm at it, I have to include advice from my mom: This too shall pass. That, as I've said before, can be comforting or scary - for as it is a relief to realize the bad stuff will pass, it is disconcerting to realize the good stuff will pass as well, so we need to appreciate it while it is here.
So today Kate graduates from college, and next week our oldest grandchild, Caroline, will turn 10 years old. I think they both realize what's important in this world, that learning is lifelong, and that they can improve the world by how they act and speak. You can't go wrong if you speak with love. And....that they are infused, covered, and permeated with encouragement and support and blessings from family and friends. Godspeed!