The Puffer Fish
There is a serious and complicated dilemma that has been repeatedly drawing my thoughts and attention this week as I read the news from around the world and from right here in Rutland, VT. I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this with you because I think I am not alone in this struggle, and I wish to have your help in solving this problem. This problem, which continuously rears its head in all of our interactions with each other, world-wide or between just 2 individuals, is two-fold. One, we do not listen to each other nearly enough and two, we have a tendency to assume the worst of each other. This problem denies us the opportunity to solve our conflicts when they arise, only making matters worse. I admit I struggle with this problem myself from time to time, reacting with passion to those certain subjects or statements that cause me to blow up like a puffer fish, as a wise comedian recently put it. (Thank you, Hannah Gadsby, for such an eloquent description of this.) And the more we participate in society; following the news, learning about issues, caring about our causes, fighting for what we see as justice and right, the more passionate and opinionated we all become and the more we tend to blow up like puffer fish in our righteous anger. So, I’ve decided I’d like to spend some time picking this apart a bit to see what can be done to help make us less puffy and more open to listening and actually hearing each other.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is Stephen Covey’s fifth habit from his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I was supposed to read this back in college at some point but had no time so browsed it briefly, thought I had grasped the basics, and moved on. So then, the first time this quote really stood out to me and sunk in, was at an assembly at my son’s elementary school where the topic was around how the kids could prevent and solve their conflicts. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I did not remember this from my previous brief time with that book, (surprise, surprise), and it took a lesson meant for 2nd graders for me to fully grasp this simple concept. Hearing and taking in this simple habit that day at the school shed some light on my constant struggle to improve how I communicate with others. Now I hear this quote in my brain weekly at least, as I teach my children how to resolve their conflicts, and as I strive for patience and understanding with them and many other people in my life.
This brings me to another thought I’ve been tossing around the last few months. When we turn 18 years old, we are considered adults. ADULTS. But we are not suddenly and magically bestowed all of the wisdom of the world, we do NOT have all of the lessons and tools we need to go forth successfully, and we have MANY lessons still to learn. But, don’t you think that it kind of feels like we have that expectation of each other and of ourselves? Stop for a minute and think about this and you’ll see what I mean. We are really hard on ourselves and each other. Somewhere along the way in humanity, the expectation and assumption that we obviously know better just because we are “adults” and therefore we should be behaving better and doing better, in all aspects of life and if we’re not then we are failing at being a good human… Whew! That’s a ton of pressure don’t you think? To put this kind of pressure on each other and ourselves is completely and totally unreasonable, yet we do it every day. What if we all looked at ourselves and others honestly, and accepted that every person has a different experience in life that none of us can possibly fully understand because we can only be ourselves and know our own experiences? So then, what if we accepted that we don’t know everything just because we’re “adults”? And on the flip side, no one else knows everything either? So, we must listen to each other. Because some of us know some things and others of us know other things. Right? We must listen and try our damndest to understand the story behind each other’s words, because there is always a story behind a person’s words. There is always more to know and understand and when we get into this deeper state of communication, this patience, this desire to really hear the other person; if we each truly tried our best when conflict arises, wouldn’t that make it easier to resolve the conflict? At the very least, it might just make it easier to remember that we are each a human being that is not perfect but who desires and deserves respect, love, and kindness.
We have gotten ourselves into a very serious state of being in our country where we, almost excitedly, jump to the worst assumptions of each other, rather than walk in with an open mind and remember that we are all human. Remember that old saying? “When you assume you make and ass out of you and me.” I have been painfully reminded of this saying by a 3-tiers-up supervisor in a previous job, and let me tell you, I will never forget that conversation. We have become so angry and divided in this country, so full of our own righteousness on all sides, that we tend to come into every conversation with pre-conceived notions about the person we are talking with and dig in and stand our ground and forget. We forget that just as we want to be treated with respect, heard, and understood, so too does the person we are talking to. This is a very serious problem and it is preventing us from moving forward as a country and it is destroying our relationships. Right now, our country has some major issues that we’re all struggling with: all kinds of equality, healthcare, our environment, to name just a few. If we do not stop yelling at each other and calling each other names and assuming the worst of each other; if we do not start listening and trying to understand each other, these problems will only be ignored and they will get worse while we yell away. Then what will we have as a legacy to leave our future generations? Hatred? Anger?
Some people in this world are so stuck in their own pain that they are drowning in it. They will continue to lash out at others, to believe deep in their souls that they are the only ones who are right, that their desire for money and control and happiness always supersedes everyone else’s human rights and equality. These people are hurting badly and might never change. I do not think that these people make up the majority of this world, but they do tend to yell the loudest. I believe in the goodness of humanity. I believe most of us want to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, that we want to give and receive kindness and love and will be there to help others up when they fall.
With fires burning all along the western coast, while we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and simultaneously experiencing protests on racial justice while more killing still happens, along with riots that are violent and causing damage, look for the helpers. Remember that saying? Look for the helpers. My sister is out of work because of COVID-19, she is helping her kids learn remotely, her husband is trying to keep working through it all, and they dropped everything last week to help tend to hundreds of families who have been displaced by the Oregon fires. People in Louisiana and Texas have come out after a huge tropical storm and hurricane to help their neighbors recover. And right here in Rutland, Vermont I have watched daily as more and more organizations and neighbors and businesses come together to help each other eat, stay in business, find housing, recover from addiction and escape abuse. We must focus on the good, on the helpers, and we must be the helpers whenever we can, remembering the commonality we all share – our humanity, our desire for kindness and our hope for love and peace.
Today I heard the phrase "Teach Peace" for the first time. I love this concept. What if we all tried very hard to focus on teaching and learning to live in peace, working through our conflicts with respect, with open ears and minds, and really listened to each other? Living in peace does not mean conflict does not exist. It means that we live in peace by learning how to handle our conflicts better when they arise. When conflict is present, that means that all the voices are at the table and this is a good thing, albeit more challenging. Conflict can make us better, to learn and grow, as individuals and as a community. Conflict isn’t going away and you can’t just refuse to deal with it anymore. Right now, we are all yelling very loudly to get our points across – to be understood. What if instead we decide to own the differences our community faces, we all come to the table, we all seek to understand each other, and THEN seek to be understood? What would happen then?
My challenge for you this week is to try very hard in all your conflicts and communications to first seek to understand the other person, THEN seek to be understood. Focus on it. Try hard at it. And see what happens. You will not be perfect at this so be patient and have compassion for yourself and others. You do not know everything or how to do everything just right. You are an imperfect adult who is still very much learning and will be learning for the rest of your life. This will take practice and you will fail sometimes. But don’t you think after all that we’ve all been through this year, that we should at least try a different way?
“What if peace has not been achieved only because people thought it was unattainable? Why do I teach peace? Because I believe it is possible.”
~Ellen Birkett Lindeen