Words Matter, Now More than Ever

July 2, 2020

The third step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is Right Speech. Right speech implies speaking words that bring peace, harmony, and compassion into any interaction. It means choosing words that come from a place of truth, authenticity, but are also infused with kindness and understanding of their implicit intentions. To use the words of Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements, ‘Be impeccable with your word.’

The bottom line in right speech is to do no harm.

For example, we often relish hearing a biting and sarcastic comment, however such comments are often made at the expense of another. Cynical, critical, snarky, hostile, or aggressive words cause harm.

Equally important to the words themselves are the things that go unsaid, or the implied subtext contained within the speech. When we practice right speech, we have to ask ourselves, “What am I trying to convey? Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Does it improve upon the silence? Am I being mindful of my words in a manner that uplifts and helps to bring understanding?”

Which brings me to the attached image. I have to admit, I debated sharing it, knowing that It might be emotionally triggering to some, but I believe it underscores the lack of understanding and compassion we are suffering from as a society right now. The left column lists some frequently heard responses to mask mandates or stay at home orders in the interests of our public safety, health, and well-being. The right column lists how those words could be interpreted.

We are in a bona fide health crisis and the science is clear that we have to adjust our way of life (wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, etc.) if we’re going to get through it. The pushback voiced in some of these frequently heard comments often betrays a constricted and egocentric view that doesn’t take the bigger picture into account.

I’m not saying that everyone who says one of the phrases in the left column necessarily feels equivalent to what’s on the right side. However, those phrases do carry a degree of insensitivity to how they may be interpreted by the listener. Yes, we filter the world and the words of others through our own biases to perceive our own reality. But that doesn’t lift the responsibility of the speaker to choose words with care. Those comments also indicate a level of ignorance to the multiple factors involved in this issue:

Do you know someone who has had or died from COVID-19? If not, at the rate we’re going, that’s likely going to change.

We all want to get back to our lives, but what do you deem to be an acceptable sacrifice to make so that can happen? How many lives? Will those lives be people you know and care about?

No one wants to live in fear. But this really isn’t about fear, it’s about concern for others. Wearing a mask or avoiding large gatherings isn’t a statement that says, “I’m afraid”, it’s a statement that says, “I care about others not getting sick”.

Freedom won’t be very relevant if illness sweeps throughout our entire country and collapses our health care system. If your breathing is being managed by a ventilator, freedom to breathe unaided is going to be a slightly bigger concern than a nationalistic ideal.

Although both sides continue to politicize the issue, 2.74M infections and 130K deaths is a lot of people. This is not make believe. It’s real and it’s serious. In the final analysis, it’s about people’s lives and not who is to blame. (although consequences and karma are inescapable…)

I can hear the pushback from some, “Oh you’re just too sensitive, too politically correct. People like you make our country weak. Suck it up, buttercup!”

To a certain extent, that’s right. I am sensitive to the words we choose to use. Despite its shock value or humor political incorrectness won’t ever qualify as right or mindful speech. I hate to break it to you, but being deliberately cruel or careless with your words doesn’t make you the tough, brutally honest, tell-it-like-it-is hero. It just makes you mean. It dumps more negativity into our collective consciousness and continues to hurt others. And since when is being sensitive to the concerns of others a bad thing? We’ve been misled to believe that compassion and caring are signs of weakness. They aren’t. They take more strength than you imagine.

“Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.”

⁃ The Dalai Lama

And maybe it’s me, but I always thought that looking out for the little guy, helping those that were weaker than us, and taking care of each other were part of our core American values.

Ultimately, you as the speaker, don’t get to determine how your speech will be interpreted. You may not think you’re being insensitive or hurtful with your words, but if they carry passive-aggressive, uncaring, or hostile baggage just below the surface that intention will still come through. You can’t un-ring the bell. Once the words leave your mouth, they can’t be pulled back in. To mindlessly fire a salvo of talking points to justify a narrative doesn’t serve anyone and only feeds a wave of ignorance and selfishness that’s sweeping the country.

Speak mindfully. Speak with compassion. Speak with understanding. Speak from a position of awareness. Speak what one of my teachers called the “sweet truth”.

Words matter. And they have consequences. They tell others who you are and what you stand for.

What will the legacy of your speech be?

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