December 28th, 2018
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This quote by Maya Angelou has become a mantra in the professional public speaking world of which I am a part. Far be it from me to disagree with such a distinguished personage, but I do. This article is about “what you said.”
In the last few weeks, I have had surprising and moving experiences of people actually remembering what I said or wrote – in one case all the way back to 1968, in another all the way back to 1980. And the week before then, 3 articles I had written for 3 different journals in three unrelated contexts were, coincidentally republished. This is not the first time these kinds of gratifying experiences have happened, but I daresay never in such close proximity to each other. Never let it be said that words don’t matter. Words did and do matter.
Such self-congratulatory comments would have been tempting to write about, but I would have resisted had events of the last few days not happened. For the last 3 years, 2 of which under the constancy of a president for whom veracity is elusive, his words of divisiveness and contributing to overt hatred have characterized his influence on the public square. This week we saw more manifestations that words indeed do matter as one fanatic booster sent bombs to those whose political views that president has demonized. Rarely has there been such a straight-line connection between speech and action. And no sooner was that person arrested, we find ourselves agonizing through a mass murder with explicit anti-Semitic motivations, also influenced by distortions of fact by the sitting president. I am working hard to make sure that my own rage is directed toward the profound changes we must make and not just verbally wringing my hands.
The current occupant of the seat of the US Presidency may be an outlier in his extreme use of derisive speech and abusive rhetoric. I can add my abhorrence of such words and affect, but I am not sure that I have any insights that will soothe the pain in the hearts of so many around the USA, nor suggest a way to change that behavior that have not already been proposed. History will surely judge him, and history will also judge whether our national ethos proves better than that.
This post, though, is not about him but about us. Since there is so little “hearing” across the current political divide, I realize that I am not exempt from doing my share to bring about change.
As long-time readers may recall, I have learned that a lifetime of professionally interesting positions have enabled the kinds of anecdotes with which I began this piece Many others have accomplished at least as much and are well-deserving recipients of public plaudits. But long-time readers should also recall that one should proceed with humility before taking too many bows. Yes, my words have been recalled with fondness and affirmation by some, but I have also learned that some recall my words and affect less positively. Some with hurt.
Typically, one doesn’t hear those negatives – or we deftly block them out. In fact, it takes courage to tell someone that they screwed up and even more that one’s words were hurtful or had a negative impact.. And it takes courage to even allow oneself to hear that kind of feedback when offered.
It doesn’t matter if our words were intended – I doubt that most of us are willful or malicious very often. Sometimes our words are simply imprecise or imperfect. Sometimes our own context isn’t fully perceptible to others. Sometimes we are simply misunderstood.
Sometimes, though, we make mistakes. We say the wrong things at the wrong time. We indulge our own needs without appropriate empathy for others. We say words without any sensitivity to how they will be heard.
The more visible or influential our position, the more this can happen. There are many more who hear or read our words whom we hardly know, or know only in passing, or whom we will never meet. This is true for all of us but the more public, the more responsibility we have.
My own pride in the affirming stories of recent weeks is tempered by knowing that some others surely have different recollections. It is humbling.
I only wish that certain political leaders would learn this lesson. Soon.
In the USA, 6 November 2018 would be a good time for that to happen!
PS: 28 December As the shutdown continues, it is still a lesson worth remembering.