The Wisest Words

Communication is the art of using the right words in the right way. Or not. Sometimes good communication means knowing when not to say anything at all.

One day a few years ago I answered the phone to hear a hesitant little voice. “Mom? Um, well, um, I accidentally threw away my retainer.” My daughter, calling home at lunchtime on the second day of fourth grade. “I forgot and put it in the garbage with my lunch sack, and they already took out the trash from the lunchroom. Will you come help me look for it?”

My first reaction was to launch into the standard lecture. You know the one. It starts with, “How could you be so careless?” and ends with, “Do you know how much we paid the orthodontist for that thing?”

Amazingly, on this occasion I managed not to say all those things. I did sigh—just once. (An experienced mother can get an amazing amount of guilt and exasperation into one sigh.) Then I said, “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

When I got to the school, Ray, the custodian, said cheerfully, “Don’t worry, this happens all the time. We’ve never lost one yet.” He put on disposable plastic gloves, handed us each a pair, and we started digging through the garbage. The retainer was in the second bag, covered with chocolate milk and a bit sticky, but good as new after a thorough washing. With great relief on both sides, I went home and my daughter went back to class.

You might think I was able to stop myself from scolding my daughter because I’m naturally a patient person—or because I’m so wise that I usually think before I speak. I’d love to have you think that. It would be wonderful. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t exactly be the truth.

The real reason I was able to keep my mouth shut was because of something that had happened to me a few weeks earlier.

I had an appointment at my doctor’s office. When I got to the clinic, I parked in a space in the middle of the parking lot. There was no curb there, just one of those concrete dividers about four inches high and four feet long. When I came out after my appointment, I got into the car to leave—and started to drive forward instead of backing up. I got one front wheel over the concrete block that I had forgotten was there. There I was, with one wheel jammed against the far side of the divider and the other jammed against the near side. I was stuck. Thoroughly stuck. Humiliatingly stuck.

There are words that are just right for such an occasion. I said a couple of them, with feeling and emphasis. Then I took a deep breath, dug out my cell phone, and called my husband. “Um, I did something really dumb and got my car stuck. Will you come help me get out?”

He showed up about fifteen minutes later. He didn’t say, “How on earth did you manage to do something so stupid?” He didn’t laugh at me. He didn’t even sigh or roll his eyes. He just jacked up the car, backed it off the barrier, made sure it wasn’t damaged, and sent me on my way.

I was very grateful for what he did to free my car. I was even more grateful for all the things he didn’t say.

Much of the time, the trouble we get into is at least partly our own fault. We forget something, we get careless, or we make a mistake. Quite often, we need a little help to get out of whatever fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. What I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes it’s my turn to come to the rescue, and sometimes it’s my turn to be the one who messes up. In the long run, it probably comes out more or less even.

If I can remember that, it’s easier not to say all those scathing words that come so easily to mind when it’s someone else’s turn to be careless. Yes, we all need to be responsible for our actions. Yes, we need to fix our mistakes. Yes, we need to learn not to make the same ones again. And it doesn’t help us a bit to have somebody else point out what an idiot we’ve been. We already know that. A chewing-out that makes us feel dumber than we do already is neither kind nor useful.

When it’s your turn to be the rescuer, try to remember all the times you’ve been on the other end of the predicament. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Go hide somewhere and rant or laugh if you need to. Then show up and shut up. Whether the person who messed up is your kid, your employee, or your spouse, give them the help they need, but skip the scolding. They’ll learn the lesson perfectly well without your rubbing it in, and both of you will be happier.

Sometimes the wisest words are the ones we never say.

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