The Wisdom of Restraint

When I was a little kid, my mother taught me a lot about dealing with people whom I didn’t especially like. Basically, there were only two rules. I them both under the heading, “The Wisdom of Restraint.”

The first one was about guarding what came out of my own mouth, and the second one was about unkind things that others said to me. And today, when the divide between differing opinions is so sharp and deep, I’m grateful for Mom’s teachings.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice . . .

The first one–the guide for how to speak to others–was, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It took me a while to understand that she didn’t mean I should never speak my truth if it was likely to offend. She meant I had to learn to express myself in a way that took others’ sensitivities into consideration and to respect them, no matter how silly or dumb their viewpoints seemed to be.

But until you’re mature enough to articulate your truth clearly and with tact, the “don’t say anything at all” part of Mom’s rule is a good guideline, and one which, it seems to me, a lot of us could well learn to adopt. If we spent less time mindlessly parroting slogans and sound bites and more time listening to reasoned, researched, and fact-based arguments, we might find that we had something worthwhile to contribute.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is adding fuel to already raging fires. And that’s no way to find workable answers to our world’s deep and complex problems. In fact, it makes them worse. It keeps us from even knowing what questions to ask in order to find solutions.

If you’re having trouble understanding how someone on the other side of a political argument could possibly believe what they believe, I highly recommend you take the time to listen to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful Ted Talk, “Healing the Divide.” And heed his advice, too, about reading Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This time-tested guide will show you how to say things tactfully and help you communicate more effectively in all aspects of your life. You can download it for free here.

Mom’s Second Rule

Okay, I know it’s not well-understood in today’s victim-culture, but Mom’s second rule holds wisdom nonetheless. She didn’t make it up. She just recognized it as sage advice that I needed to know: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

That rule taught me that I didn’t need to be offended just because someone was being offensive. If I was secure in myself, I could take their words as an expression of their opinion and nothing more. And they were as entitled to their opinion as I was to mine.

Everybody lives in his own reality bubble. But we all share things in common, too. If what you say shocks me, I don’t need to react defensively. Instead, I can tell you that I don’t see things the same way. I can be curious about why you see things as you do and, if you’re open to talking about it, share my own viewpoint and reasoning with you. Who knows? Maybe we’ll end up being the best of friends. Maybe we’ll be stimulated to continue talking about the issue over time, and both expand our views in the process. Maybe we’ll cordially agree to disagree, to like all the other things there are to like about each other.

In essence, the “sticks and stones” rule is about learning how to respond rather than to react. It takes practice. It goes against our natural grain. But it’s a pathway to peace, both internally and between opposing parties. And these days, when our weapons are not sticks and stones but implements of total destruction, it’s the only pathway we can take and still survive.

Wishing peace and healing for us all.

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