Tag Archives: communication

Leave It Better Than You Found It

I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.

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This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel that I had the ability to do something good.

This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.

So, what does that mean?

If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.

Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.

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Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.

Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.

Here’s the hardest thing of all. It may be that the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.

I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.

If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.

Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.

We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”

An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.

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Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience that my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.

Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:

  • Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
  • Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
  • Do I rush in and try to fix problems that belong to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
  • Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
  • Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
  • Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
  • Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
  • Do I have expectations of others?
  • Am I highly invested in the outcomes of choices that others make?
  • Am I being honest about who I am and giving freely from my authenticity?
  • Can I be wrong? Do I know how to say I’m sorry? Do I take responsibility when I’ve hurt someone? Can I accept an apology? Can I practice forgiveness?
  • Can I be honest about my feelings?
  • Do I use my power to make others bigger or silence and diminish them?
  • Do I keep my word?
  • Am I able to give and take gracefully and equally?
  • Do I value the needs of others as much as I value my own?
  • Can I bless the ground between us?

I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.

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We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.

Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.

As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.

Leaving the world and the people around me better than I found them. My daily crime.

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After Breaking

I am blessed in my friends.

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I don’t mean Facebook “friends.” I mean real people with whom I frequently spend time talking, working, laughing and crying. These people honor my life with their presence. They inspire me.

One of my friends responded to last week’s post with depth and wisdom, opening me still further to the value and beauty of brokenness. Here is her comment, lightly edited:

I too felt broken, but stronger for it.  Because of your “broken pieces” I’m stronger throughout. And as I piece back together into something different, I too take my “broken pieces” and try to help others as you did me. So maybe all our little broken pieces don’t fit together anymore, but we can give those pieces to the next person and it helps start a foundation to put them back together in their new beautiful masterpiece.

What my friend is describing here is the heart of any community: contribution. If we decide to value our brokenness as well as our wholeness, we can offer ourselves without reservation to others. We can contribute everything we are without shame.

We can be authentic.

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In my own life, I’ve found more healing and support in the broken pieces others offer me than the shiny new ones. I’m chipped and frayed myself in so many ways, it’s hard to connect with someone who maintains a perfect façade and admits to no flaw, mistake or weakness.

We all know people who hoard every bit of their damage jealously in order to use it as justification for destructive choices and behavior. We also see people taking terrible experiences and making an offering of them to others through example, service or art.

Once again, it boils down to a chocolate-or-vanilla choice. We will certainly experience wear and tear in our lives. What will we do with the fragments? In that respect we have complete power.

The idea of offering our shreds and scraps to one another delights me. Not only am I inspired to greater creative and spiritual possibilities for my own reshaping with broken pieces from others, I can offer remnants that no longer serve me to my community. We can all build and repair foundations together, creating a network of grace, wisdom, and strength.

Perhaps we each have a broken piece someone is looking for, and some stranger we have yet to meet has a piece we need.

Last week’s post was one of my broken pieces, offered with a slight shudder, as always. I still, after more than 200 posts, have a hard time pushing the “publish” button. There’s still a small voice in my head that tells me I’m worthless, I have nothing to offer, and everything I think, feel, say, do and write is wildly inappropriate, inadequate, or (worst of all) is displeasing someone I love.

I do it anyway, because writing is what I do.

But when someone steps forward and fits one of their jagged, ragged, splintered edges against one of mine, I’m touched to the heart and my faith in myself and the enduring power of the human spirit is renewed.

Broken? Not at all. Repaired.

My daily crime.

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Hate Speech or Haters Speaking?

As so often happens, there are several strands to this post. Chronologically, the first strand was this podcast from The Minimalists about race relations. I don’t usually take the time to listen to podcasts, but I follow The Minimalists and this discussion was a perfect antidote to the current disturbing headlines and media rhetoric. It made me think and provided some insight into the problem of racism. In the podcast, there’s a fascinating discussion about hate speech in which a suggestion is made that it’s not a real thing.

What?

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I know. That was my reaction, too. Hate speech is everywhere, right? On social media, on signs and bumper stickers, in the mouths of ordinary people, and in the media. It’s true that words are frequently used hatefully as we talk and write. Language, remember, is a symbolic system used to convey meaning. Speech, or writing, for that matter, is simply the use of language. Speech is only a small part of conveying information, though. Nonverbal communication is more important than the actual words we use, things like volume, intonation, emphasis and body language.

Hate speech is simply speech used to convey hate. The words alone are mostly neutral. The speaker or writer are the sources of the hate.

It’s trickier even than that. Some common, perfectly neutral words like “uterus” are now classified by some as hate speech. This is clearly ridiculous. There’s nothing hateful about the word. When I use it, I’m certainly not feeling or intending to communicate hate. The hatred, if it exists, is in the listener.

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Hateful people speak and write hatefully, and are predisposed to hear hate when none is intended. People who are not haters use the same words to convey simple meaning, and are surprised and incredulous when accused of engaging in “hate speech.” Fortunately, being accused of hate speech doesn’t make it so.

Let me be clear that I’m not poking at things like mascot names that demean American Indians, or use of words like “nigger.” I don’t support either, ever, for any reason. When a group of people protests that such terms are hurtful to their culture, history, and sense of worth, we need to be respectful. Some words are pejorative and ugly, and they’re meant to be. Language is not static; hundreds of slang words and idiotic labels are created and used every year, some with a specific intent to convey hatred and contempt. What I’m focusing on is standard language, words we use in everyday settings and circumstances that are defined in a dictionary.

I’ve thought a lot about this. Is there such a thing as hate speech, or is it simply that hateful people use language to say and write hateful things? In that case, the problem is people hating, not the words themselves.

That was the first thing.

The second thing was that a few days ago we adopted a pair of kittens. We both love cats, and our old cat died over the winter, so we had an empty place in our hearts, which these two have filled magnificently.

Ozzy & Izzy June, 2020

It’s been a long time since I’ve had babies to take care of, and it brings back a flood of memories and feelings, especially my desire to be a “good” mom. I notice how important it is to me that they be happy, healthy, safe, well-bonded and learn to differentiate between bare skin and clothing as they climb, play and explore. I want to do it right. I want to do it well. I spend time evaluating my patience, my efforts to keep them safe, my performance as litter box cleaner and fresh water procurer, my roles as playmate, limit-setter and comforter.

Am I a good kitten caregiver?

The third strand in this post comes from a book, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, who is one of my favorite writers.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a good or bad Christian,” I told him. “Only good or bad people.”

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As I read that, I thought about the podcast I’d listened to, and my conclusion that perhaps there’s not such a thing as hate speech, just words used by haters. My practice of minimalism has taught me to simplify wherever possible, and it occurs to me that we’re all many things to many people in life, and most of us are trying to be “good” friends, partners, family members, employees, and probably an infinite number of other roles. We fragment our identities into all these shards and pieces. What if we let go of all that and focused on being “good” humans? Wouldn’t being a “good” human across the board take care of everything else?

Then, of course, we have to decide what we mean by good and bad, but I’ve already opened that can of worms a couple of times, so I’m not going to go there again. Let’s forget about the term “good,” which means everything and nothing.

If I practice love instead of hate (including with myself), if I strive to be tolerant, respectful, authentic, responsible and keep my integrity intact, then I bring those qualities to everything I do every day, whether I’m working, hanging at home, playing with kittens, spending time with friends, interacting with family, or buying groceries. I don’t have to worry about being a “good” anything. I simply strive to be the best human I can be, whatever the circumstances, whatever the context.

Let it be said that not everyone has a desire to be “good.” I am all too well aware that assuming everyone has my agenda is a fatal mistake. There are those who would love to see the world on fire.

Still, I believe most of us are trying to be a “good” … whatever, according to our definition of good. Sadly, especially when we think about religious and political pieces of identity, this is often where the hate begins.

It’s complicated. People are complicated. We’re also devious. Debating about what is and is not hate speech is a diversionary tactic that takes us nowhere. The issue is not words. Words don’t hate. The issue is our own hatred toward ourselves and others, and for that we are responsible. The issue is not our willingness or ability to fulfill expectations of what it means to be a “good” fill-in-the-blank. That’s nothing but pseudo self. Life is not a performance. The issue is what kind of humans do we choose to be? What kind of humans are we?

Certain ways of thinking support and feed my perfectionism, and other ways of thinking starve it. Being concerned with being a “good” this, that and the other is a lot of anxious work and encourages perfectionism, pseudo self, people pleasing, and a whole host of other unhelpful behavior patterns.

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Approaching each day and activity with a desire to be my best and respect the needs and feelings of myself and others is not only simpler; it leaves me with energy and space to have fun, to love others wholeheartedly (even when they do climb up my bare leg with tiny pin-sharp claws), and to enjoy life.

I talk. I write. I listen to feedback about how my words affect others. I know I’m not a hater, and I don’t allow others to project their hatred onto me. I accept that I have no power over readers or listeners who are determined to misunderstand and twist my words into hatred. I practice respect for myself and for others. Words used by haters divide and leave deep wounds. Words used by non-haters have the power to connect and heal.

If we are not humans who hate, our language will not be hateful. If I practice love, responsibility, patience and tolerance, I’m a good-enough kitten caretaker. If I strive to be a “good” human (according to my definition), then I can forget about my individual performance of all those fragmented pieces of identity.

Choosing not to hate. Loving kittens. Striving to be a tolerant, respectful, kind, compassionate, responsible, authentic human. My daily crimes.

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