Thursday, April 14, 2011

Words Matter - Speak with a Kind Heart

An article in the paper caused me to remember Leo Ragsdale (not his real name), one of my buddies on the high school golf team a long time ago. The article was "Words Shape Your World," by Mike Fitsko. The author explains the anxiety he felt when told he had to update his photo for the newspaper column. He relates an incident that happened to him while being photographed for his high school senior portrait. After much fussing with the lights and camera, the photographer said, "I'm afraid you have a problem, Mr. Fitsko. You don't have a natural smile."

For the rest of his life, he recalled this criticism - with some pain - every time someone wanted to take his picture.

When I was in high school, Leo and I would play golf together a couple times a week. I no longer play golf. It's a difficult game, and years ago my military career made it impossible to maintain my skills. When golf stopped being fun for me, I gave it up. But as a teenager, it was a huge passion.

One of my most vivid memories of Leo involved his older brother. Leo and I were walking back from the golf course one day when a loud, mocking voice shouted from across the street, "Hey Loser! Where do you think you're going?" At first, I thought the put-down was aimed at me, and I felt a sting in my gut. Then Leo explained that "Loser" was a nickname given to him by his older brother.

I don't think Leo ever considered it a term of endearment. As often happens with high school friends, I lost touch with him. But a few years ago, I heard from another friend that Leo had suffered a series of setbacks. He had become an alcoholic, which led to his being fired. Soon afterward, his wife divorced him. A few years later, he died of a drug overdose.

I'm sure Leo craved the love and approval of his older brother, but the contempt he received instead must have caused unbearable, lasting pain.

In the early 1970s I made friends with novelist John Cheever while researching my dissertation about him. During one of my visits to his home in Ossining, New York, he told me about his relationship with his mother, who is depicted in the award-winning novel, The Wapshot Chronicle. "One day when I was a small boy, my mother felt it necessary to tell me that I was 'an accident.' The message that settled in my heart was that I was unwanted."

The more I got to know Cheever, the more I realized that the feeling that he was unloved and perhaps unworthy of love shaped his fiction. Many of the main characters in his stories are men who suffer from loveless relationships. Even though his fame slowly grew, Cheever's personal life was like a downward spiral. His unfulfilled need for love kept him from maintaining healthy relationships. It also drove him to abuse alcohol all his life. All of this made it harder for people to love him.

I think Mike Fitsko is right. Words do matter. Thoughtless remarks can have a profound emotional impact, especially on young people who haven't yet formed a strong sense of identity and self-worth. Criticism, even if spoken without malice, can wound a person's self-esteem. The feeling that "I'm not worthy" can lead someone to pass on opportunities and healthy relationships, which in turn can cause problems that lead to aggravated low self-esteem. It's the most damaging kind of self-reinforcing cycle I can think of.

Who do you care about? Eventually they'll do something to make you angry. Do you love them enough to watch what you say?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


Jørgen Sundgot said...

This is a perfect example of why perspective matters. My belief - näive, perhaps - is that very few people sincerely wish to inflict harm upon others, but rather fail to realize the extent to which their comments or critique are negatively interpreted by others.

Unfortunately, most humans suffer from insecurities (particularly in today's socitety where perfection incomprehensibly appears to be an ideal), and when you combine this with poor communication skills it's sadly unsurprising to learn of stories such as those described in this post.

For this reason, I'd love to see communication become an independent, obligatory class from as young an age as preschool - I've witnessed remarkable progress in both children and adults when accompanied by someone experienced in facilitating communications, and am constantly dumbstruck as to how little it takes to awaken a sense of perspective and empathy under the right circumstances.

Oh, and thanks for the reminder, Denny - we could all benefit from one every now and then.


GRC - Greg said...

Great post! We spew so many words in our lifetime without a thought, and forget all but a few. Others remember, though, with in some cases scars that can last a lifetime and cause far more damage over time than we imagine at the time we speak. We'd do well to learn & practice care with everything we say or display, as most of the information we give to others is nonverbal. Thanks for your fine and important contribution.

Anonymous said...

What and how things are said to us is so important to how we shape our view of the world. For me it was the few compliments or words of wisedom from strangers that enabled me to see over the negative belief system that infests my family of origin. Just one person from my past saying you can do better pushes me to not give up when things are difficult