When I was 18 years old in university, I was smart, ambitious and hard-working, I got permission to take fourth year history courses in the beginning of my second year. I felt tremendously excited about this. I’d also got a promise of directed studies work from one of my favourite profs. I was going to get my degree in social history, find out the true stories of real people and how they understand each other, and take care of each other. I was going to max out my credits and fill up my curious brain with lifelong learning. I was on top of the world.
Right away, first week, the prof (who would become another of my favourites) told us we would each have to do a one-hour presentation within the next 6 weeks, effectively researching and teaching each other the curriculum. I can’t tell you how nervous this made me. Me, a silly little fresh-out-of-highschool girl, teach those big blustery history-heads and mature students too? I resolved to do my best, and signed up for one of the later slots, hoping to get a handle by watching and listening to my peers. The next week I walked into seminar early. Only one other student in the room, a big, smart guy I’ll call Stewart, who called the prof by his first name and seemed to have an educated opinion about everything. Older too. Musta been 25 or 26. My superior in every way. I asked him, “howzit goin’?” When he did the same I told him I was nervous about the presentation, and already working on the reading to be sure to do a good job.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re a good-looking young girl. You’ll get a good mark, doesn’t matter what you say.”
The 98% I got on my presentation 3 weeks later, and my A in the course are thanks in no small part to Stewart, who made me so damn angry I forgot about being scared and got down to presenting his arrogant ass right out the 5th floor window just so I could watch it splat on the quadrangle below.
Words have a way of doing that, spurring us on to action or stopping us dead in your tracks – depends I guess on how we’re feeling at the time. I can tell you I will never forget those words, or their implication. Or the effect they will have on me, forever.
Fast forward a year to the night my highschool girlfriends got together to plan a wedding shower for a friend. We’d been thick as thieves from grade 8 to grade 12, then went our separate ways after graduation, for the most part. Joining up again was fun. So much had happened since we’d last sat down. Then my friend arrived. I’ll call her Thelma. Dressed to the nines. I blurted out, “Thelma, I can’t believe it! You look GREAT!” Damn words…truth is, Thelma dressed pretty trashy through highschool, so much so that some of the kids made fun of her behind her back, and I was glad to see her looking like she liked her self a bit better than before, but there was nothing I could say to undo the damage. The rest of the evening was painfully awkward. I left early with teeth-clenched hugs and hollow “See you soons,” echoing in my ears.
Words slip out so easily, betraying our secrets, twisting our intentions. They’re permanent, indelible and in-correctible. I listen to conversations looping, edit my contribution after the fact, but done is done, even when I wish I could retract them like backwards music, swallow them back and just stay mum. But it’s too late.
Now one good friend is angry with another good friend. Mad enough not to speak to her for weeks. All over some words not properly heard and responded to in what might have been comic but turned out to be a tragically inappropriate manner. One small hurt sparks a reaction of volcanic proportions and the words splash out like burning magma, scarring as they fall on limbs already battered by the hardness of life. It’s next to impossible to forgive the one who deals the crushing blow, even if it was just a stupid comment delivered to exactly the wrong person at exactly the wrong time.
I believe it is in our nature to talk first and think later. Were we to stifle this impulse we would probably never know each other, hatch earth-changing ideas, love authentically or make art. We have to talk and talking is an inexact science.
All that remains is forgiveness and the charitable assumption of benefit of the doubt. Curiosity too.
Recently, I heard a friend say something to another friend that made my heart quicken. An insensitive remark at a bad time. Something so truly out of character I could not believe it. So I used my words. Unable to muster the courage in the moment, I phoned the next day. I chose my words carefully…”You are my friend, so I must ask…Last night I heard you say….” I mustered curiosity and trust to ask a friend about his words, and learned that he too was wishing for a rewind button, and also that he had spoken after to the one he must have hurt. Clarified intention, recognized transgression, made amends.
Words are like that. We all screw up and toss them carelessly like daggers or mud clots. When they hit their mark it doesn’t matter how we chase them, own them, take them back. They are their own echoes, with limited edit-ability. Their harm is permanent regardless of what we meant to say (or not say). All that matters how they were heard.
question - what's that you said?
mompoet - listening with an open heart