Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How do we learn to speak kindly?

There's a Chinese proverb I only heard recently, which has a deep resonance to some of the formative experiences of my childhood:

"Words are like eggs, once dropped, they cannot be picked up again."

I have a hard time hearing profanity, even of the milder kinds that have become ubiquitous in popular culture. I love slang, and jargon, and coded language, but the constant flavoring of ordinary speech with gratuitous profanity – much the way many Spanish speakers use


a wonderful word, without real meaning, usually translated as "well," but holding a charm and energy – the word is a delight to say, like a blown kiss sliding into a seductive smile – that is of another order of richness from almost any word in common English, much less the horrid little well, which feels like an ugly blend of a smirk and a phony, forced smile to say and means nothing in an annoying way, without any of the sensual pleasure of saying or hearing



All of which is just to get round to the question I started with, 

How do we learn to speak kindly?

and the answer I was struggling to find has something to do with listening to silence. There is an abhorrence of hearing silence in modern Western culture, exemplified in a scary way by the radio name for it,

dead air.

If silence is like a death, then the activity of speaking is worthwhile, regardless of the content of the speech, so as to express one's aliveness, to fill the space with, at least, the blather of ordinary activity. This perhaps explains the horror of the ubiquitous playing TV's, one in each room, that one finds in so many American homes and workplaces, public spaces and even mundane activities--on our recent visit to LA, I saw for the first time a TV embedded in the metering and payment face of a gas pump. 

School classrooms should be spaces where children learn about and practice listening to silence. In the space of less than an hour, I was able to lead a group of second graders who mostly had never played with string at all, to be able to slowly execute together the Karok Fish Spear, 

a simple string figure, in silence. I told them they were rehearsing to be able to perform the trick together in silence for their regular teacher (I was there for only one day, as a substitute) the next day. Whether they will actually get to try that today, I'm not sure. But at least yesterday they had a practice run and working together on a common task in silence for a few moments. It's not much, but I truly believe it helps.

I sat with my father in silence for many hours as a child. That helps, too. There was that beneficial aspect of his otherwise maddening psychoanalytic reserve. Still, I do wish we had talked a lot more. Makes me resolve to create opportunities to talk with my own children, a lot more than I do.