Say What You Mean

I am a lover of words. Some people read to learn, or they listen to music to enjoy the beat, or they have long conversations just to hear themselves talk. That is not me. Words are thrown around with so much carelessness, but they aren’t just sounds strung together. They mean something. They carry weight. They can change lives.  

I’ve read a lot of different types of books lately— ones I never would’ve picked up in the past. For example, this Christmas My Friend gave me an Oliver Sacks box set. I probably wouldn’t have chosen them for myself because I tend to gravitate towards political books, or faith-based books, or any kind of fiction, but I am loving them. Oliver Sacks understands the beauty of words. He can describe the most devastating situations and yet communicate them with an aura of hope and resilience like no one I’ve ever seen. Even when he’s talking about death, he’s speaking life. But he is true to the nature of the condition which is that it is terminal, it is (in most cases) irreversible, that it poses a significant challenge, but that it can be valuable. That’s what words are meant to do.

I’ve told you before that one of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride, and one of the best scenes in it is when Inigo Montoya looks at Vizzini and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” And I have this urge to cheer because he’s so right. Stop saying things that aren’t true. Stop saying things just to hear yourself talk. Just stop. That’s how I feel. 

What I’m learning about myself is that this particular love of mine, the love of words, is not just about the beauty of language. It’s about transparency of character. I am naturally drawn to polarizing personalities. This is because, as Benjamin Button used to say, “You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.” They say what they mean, they mean what they say, and I feel safe with them. Safe because I never have to wonder if they are saying one thing while thinking another. Safe because they are proving themselves trustworthy by being consistently honest with me. Safe because that was the type of person my mother was.  

In healthcare we are trained to use firm, direct words when there has been a death, so that families have a sense of closure and finality. We are taught not to say, “She passed away,” or “He didn’t make it.” Instead, we say, “I’m so sorry. We did everything we could, but she was just so sick, and unfortunately we could not save her. She died.” That is respect. That is admitting the full extent of the news with integrity. That is what you owe to the people you interact with. When you sugarcoat things for me, it makes me think you have something to hide. When you give me political spin, it makes me think you are manipulative. It is what it is, so just spit it out already for the love of all that is good and holy, so we can all move on. 

I myself have always been pretty honest about my feelings. I’ve never been particularly adept at hiding them, so I figure cutting straight to the chase is for the best. God has given me a built-in warning system for people who are slick talkers. If they say things to me like, “We’re facing some challenges,” or “We’re going through a time of transition,” the alarm bells go off. You know why? Because that’s not what they mean. What they mean is that something catastrophic has happened, and gut-level honesty makes people uncomfortable so they are trying to make it out to be some grand adventure. Guess what? It’s not. And you insult my intelligence when you try to reframe it so that it’s easier for you to say. And you make me need Zofran, which leads to headaches and constipation, and I just don’t have the energy for all that. 

People who are really good at choosing their words in a way that communicates honesty without fear of judgement (in my opinion) are Taylor Swift (fight me if you disagree, I am who I am). John the Baptist. Jesus. Teenage boys. And my kids. 

Flipping through my notebook from our beach trip last summer, I found a list of honest things my kids said to me while we were gone. Here are a couple:

Benjamin Button: “I like looking at the ocean and swimming. I do not like it when my face burns. I do not like it when I get sand in my penis and on my feet. I do not like it when I put my feet in flip-flops and the sand is there and my feet feel grouchy. Nobody likes grouchy feet.” 

Mary Ann: “Life sucks. But at least you had a happy childhood. Mine has been filled with character-building experiences.” 

Maybe you’re not comfortable with that level of honesty. That’s fine. Not everyone is. It takes a level of confidence and integrity that most people are just inherently lacking. But when you can offer it to the people in your circle, this level of vulnerable honesty will set you free. You owe that to your people. And I owe it to myself to only surround myself with people who offer it. So do you. If you don’t know where to start, Mary Ann and Benjamin Button will be glad to train you, and you will be a better person for it. 

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