Friday, November 15, 2013


Sometimes, words of wisdom are hard to hear. Or, to put it another way - hard to parse. 

All of us have our own specific language. We may share words and ideas, but each phrase or use of common vocabulary means something different from person to person. I love words, obviously - my poetry, recently, is an exercise in parsing and reimagining the definitions and sounds of words. That exercise is proof in my mind that words can hold multiple meanings - connotations based on past experiences and present situations. Add words together to make a sentence? Well, that's even more complicated, and even more personal. 

For example, we can say, "pet." I grew up with hamsters, birds, and dogs, so when I hear that word I think of my cockatiel Rembrant singing to my braces when I was thirteen. Pet means my grandmother's standard poodle, Harry, who ate watermelon and had very human, compassionate eyes. Pet even means my experiences with my two hamsters, Emily and Sarah, who died of urinary tract infections (oh lord, how horrible). All of those specific memories engender equally specific feelings when I hear that three letter word. 

But your pet is different from my pet - your feelings and memories are not mine, are personal, are a part of who you are and how you approach animals and attachments. Even so, any word means any specific thing or group of things to each of us. We all hear the same word, but our brains parse it within our own contexts to arrive at a suitable definition. 

Then we get to sentences. Advice, encouragement, interrogatives, admonishments, pleas for help, compliments. When I was a teenager, I interpreted compliments as subtle digs, lies, things to make me feel better which were not actually true - especially when addressing my intelligence or physical appearance. I have this library of memories surrounding words like thin, smart, pretty, artistic, and while I am no longer a teenager and a bit more confident, I still end up shuffling through that library, searching for a reference in the card catalogue of my former insecurities. So, as an adult, if I am given a compliment regarding my appearance, I have to stop and remind myself that my old definitions of pretty, attractive, curvy, must no longer apply. I must reinvent myself, down to the way I hear and parse certain words. 

So words of wisdom - phrases which frequently employ simple, easy to define vocabulary? I often find them loaded or burdened, ideas to untangle and dissect and react to only once I have acknowledged my personal biases and history. That doesn't make encouragement useless, offensive, or judgmental - rather, encouragement is an opportunity to recognize my inner life, definitions, past, and present. It takes a minute, but I try to overlook my initial perceptions and filters in order to get to the point. 

Today on Facebook, I saw an image - a list of advice, or life-truths. At first, I will admit, my reaction to it was a pretty resounding, oh hell no, but I forced myself to look back at the text and think, what do these words really mean? Can I unpack them so that they might have meaning in my life? 

The advice was fairly innocuous - it was my bias, my library of personal definitions, which changed it from friendly to sinister. I interpreted the words in a way which made me bristle with, you can't tell me what to do! But going back, reading it again, I realized that I could make the conscious choice to change my definitions, to parse the words anew. And once I had done that, the advice - shocking! - actually made sense to me. And it's good advice, while, I'd argue, it requires us to evaluate how we react to it and how it applies to us. Here's what the image said, along with my reactions: 

1. Make peace with your past so it won't screw up the present. 

Initial interpretation: get over it already!

Reassessment: your past informs your current actions, emotions, and reactions to the world around you. Understand your past so that you might enjoy your present unburdened by previous hurts and harms. 

2. What others think of you is none of your business. 

First: don't be such a darn busybody, nobody cares!

Then: actually, other people probably don't think about you that much. So don't worry about it! It isn't that it's none of your business - it's that it doesn't make you a different person, place any expectations on you, or hand down judgment on your choices. 

3. Time heals almost everything, give it time.

First: get over yourself. Who wants to hear about your past or your problems?

Then: "time" is another word for change. Changing your life, changing yourself, is the only way to heal, and change is an active process - living is change, living is being engaged, and living takes time. Change happens externally but also internally, and it is how we change ourselves over time which allows us to heal. 

4. Don't compare your life to others' and don't judge them. You have no idea what their journey is all about. 

First: actually, this is pretty dead-on. 

Then: this is absolutely true - but it's hard to execute when you think other people are judging you! So, let's go back to number two - no one is really thinking about you all that much. So live your life outside of the cloud of expectations, judgment, and comparison. 

5. Stop thinking too much, it's alright not to know the answers. They will come to you when you least expect it. 

First: honey, please, thinking is a good thing. How can I figure anything out when I don't think? What's that like? I'm not going to wait around for contentment to fall in my lap, you know.

Then: honestly, this one is still bugging me. My positive spin, though, is that this is about worry rather than about critical thinking or intellect. Perhaps "thinking" in this context actually means "fretting." And yes, goodness knows, worrying too much can definitely harm you. So, you know, let's worry less. But I'm not going to stop thinking, or stop questioning everything from my thought process to how to nail the fourth page of Ravel's Sonatine. 

6. No one is in charge of your happiness, except you.  

First: what, are we giving a free pass to people who are mean and inconsiderate? Those people need to check themselves because their actions and words really do hurt. 

Then: well, yeah. I must take responsibility for my own happiness instead of waiting for others to do the right thing. Sometimes it stinks when we feel like we need respect or affirmation from people who are incapable of giving it - but it's valuable to remember that we have opportunities to distance ourselves from negativity. Taking charge of our happiness can mean creating boundaries so that we are less likely to be hurt as well as reinforcing positive self-talk. Taking charge, sometimes, means being able to walk away. Tough lesson, that. 

7. Smile. You don't own all the problems in the world. 

First: excuse me? First off, I know I am privileged to the extreme and that others have issues. Second, I will smile when I want to because sometimes I just can't! I will not lie with my face to make other people more comfortable, that's for sure. 

Then: I think I am dead on about the smiling thing. The "buck up," "man up," "tough it out," school of thinking really concerns me because it implies that a person's feelings are either invalid or of no import. And I think that "bucking up" is usually for the benefit of the people around us, because we are taught not to have messy, ugly feelings. We are not supposed to be truthful when we are upset, and that leads to so many issues - self-doubt, stress, unhealthy stress releases, physical problems, etc. I will smile to be polite, perhaps, but I will not smile just because I am supposed to. 

However, it is helpful for me to count my blessings, which this tip is probably about. I do feel better when I think about my awesome sister, or my wonderful husband, or the organic, local produce in the fridge. Realizing my incredible luck is very useful when I feel downtrodden by things I cannot change. So, again, re-thinking this advice means letting go of my initial dependence on my card catalogue of emotional reference so that I might come to a better understanding of myself. 

All seven of these points can be interpreted for ill meaning or for good. I'm never going to respect a "get over it" attitude, nor will I respect the idea that I must hide my emotions in order to be happy. Having feelings - as I wrote earlier this week - is a good thing, and what makes it better is thinking through those feelings, seeing myself through a compassionate rather than a dismissive gaze. No, my emotions should not rule me - rather, through introspection and self-critique, I should come to terms with the things which bother me or which upset my internal balance. 

When confronted with such words of wisdom as the above, I need to understand myself before I attempt to parse or assimilate these well-intentioned phrases. I cannot give in to my habitual behaviors of rejection and defensiveness; I must study myself and, finally, come to appreciate the true, or at least deeply personal, meanings of the words. 

No one hears language the same way. We communicate with the same vocabulary but draw conclusions based on our own experiences. And I think we can better understand each other if we first understand ourselves - not just what we say, but what we mean. Not what we read, but what we learn. 

Oh, and one more thing. My own number eight: 

Respect yourself, because you and what you feel are valid and true. Understand yourself so that you might learn happiness. And give yourself a break when you don't get it right the first time - sometimes all you need are a few moments to re-think the completely surmountable separation which is being human in a world of language. 

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