July 28th, 2010

bitch [mys1985]

"i always feel i have to open my mouth / and every time i do / i offend someone / somewhere"

I read Molly's "Bald" post Monday afternoon, but didn't have the energy to comment.

Excerpt (emphases mine):
People know that I have a cancer diagnosis and am undergoing chemotherapy, so that gives me a lot of permission. I tire easily, am often hoarse or have mouth sores, so they know I have to use words sparingly. But I’ve taken the permission further, extended it not just to quantity, but to quality of words.

I don’t beat around the bush in emails anymore. I keep it short and sweet. And in in-person conversations, I just come out and say what’s on my mind, what I need, what my family needs, what I can’t bear, what my limits are, what I think is really going on. It has been very, very helpful in establishing boundaries.

And it is such a RELIEF. Maybe it’s a relief to other people, too. Maybe they were very patiently waiting for me to get to the point all these years. Maybe it’s not a relief! Maybe it’s been hard on people, this newly bald me, and they’ll tell me so when chemo is over.

Because the new baldness in speaking also extends to telling people some truths (from my perspective) about themselves. One of my seminary professors, Ellen Davis, said when we were studying the book of Proverbs, which has a lot to say about straight talk, that ‘criticism is a gift.’ I never forgot her words.

And even though I myself for decades have delicately wrapped (constructive) criticism in layers and layers of tissue paper before handing over the gift, I find that I prefer mine given to me straight, even if it’s pointy. Because wrapped in so much tissue, you sometimes miss the gift. It is almost embarrassing to find out that you have been hurting someone, or not living out of your best and highest self in a way that others have been noticing for some time, and you only just figured it out.

You would hope that people who really love you, will tell you when you have food in your teeth. And that they will also tell you when your behavior is harmful or irresponsible or selfish, or just infringing on their boundaries.
I myself have had people who love me confront me, baldly, a few times in my life, and even though it hurt like hell, I was so, so grateful for the gift. It’s not an exaggeration to say it quite markedly changed the course of my life.


So much of the time I think we (ministers especially! This is our fatal flaw!) are nice not because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, the holy thing to do, but because we are terrified people won’t like us if we aren’t. And they might not—that’s a risk we take. C.S. Lewis again: he said we are not called to be nice people, but to become new people.

The end result was, she was thoroughly apologetic and penitent (I think she hadn’t know about chemo, but still), and I bet she won’t forget her keys again. I probably embarrassed her very much. It’s partly my fault—I enabled her behavior for a long time, with my niceness, absorbing her irresponsibility at cost to myself and my family.

I’m not sure if I did the bald talk ‘right.’ It would have been better if I hadn’t been stressed, or if I’d sent a warning shot over the bow. I’ve been accused, and rightly so, of having no middle gear. But I don’t regret doing it. I want to practice doing it more!

We are never, never called to be cruel to each other, of course. That is self-indulgence and immaturity. But there must be a third way, between an enabling niceness that doesn’t call other people honestly to be the person (we believe) God wants them to be, and a disabling cruelty that undoes the other’s self-esteem.

There is something wonderfully refreshing about people just telling each other the plain truth. Not bursting forth in long-pent-up anger. Just enforcing boundaries or offering constructive criticism with brevity, and enough affect and kindness to keep it cool, but not so much that your ultimate meaning becomes obscured.
As I was first reading this, I was thinking, "But I've been growing in spiritual maturity learning NOT to be bluntly openly criticizingly honest all the time! How do you get to compellingly argue that I was right to begin with and shouldn't have been doing all this work?"

But of course as I read on, I was reminded that even "bald" honesty still needs to not be cruel.

I thought of how Laura Ruth commented that in the two years she's known me I've been able to be more gentle on myself and others -- not giving up on my own sense of what's right, but being more aware of the other people who are in the room with me and what their needs are.

I thought about my "Someone is WRONG on the Internet" impulse -- and how I want people to be correct "my way," often regardless of what their priorities/values/etc. might be.

My best friend recently related a conversation she had with someone about me:
Person: "All I heard from Elizabeth was complaining."
My best friend: "But that's how Elizabeth communicates."
We both, of course, know that that's not literally true all the time, but I refer you to ani difranco's "what if no one's watching":
we have to be able to criticize
what we love
say what we have to say
'cause if you're not trying to make something better
then as far as i can tell
you are just in the way
As I attempt to wrap up this post... I think of what Molly said about criticism being a "gift," and I think that'll be a helpful framework for me moving forward -- am I making this criticism because it will be a gift to the other person (and this includes clearly and firmly articulating and enforcing my own boundaries, because if people love and care about me then of course they don't want to harm me)?