By Peter Schaller
A close friend had been taking care of her dad in the hospital last week.
He was a man who lived on Dr. Pepper and cheese puffs for most of his life, so the quadruple bypass surgery was no big surprise. In addition to his health problems, I also knew that there was a long and complicated history to their father-daughter relationship. I could only imagine the anguish she must have been feeling as she bode the hours in the waiting room, remembering fresh air, hoping to escape for a run or at least to find something remotely green (not jello) and fresh in the hospital cafeteria.
I sent her a quick email, five lines or so. It basically just said, I know how rough it must be, but I also know that you are resilient. We’re with you.
A few hours later she wrote back saying that my email had arrived at a critical moment. Family tensions had been peaking, her step mother was lurking and my friend had been ready to check herself into the psyche ward.
It was the simplest of gestures, something that any of us would do for our friends and loved ones.
One short email—a collection of 88 words—had somehow made a positive impact on her day. This made me think about how easy it can be to life people up with our words, when we choose them carefully and compassionately.
If we look at the concept of right speech in the Pali Canon, there are four main elements: abstaining from false speech and lies; avoiding slander or words that cause disharmony; abstaining from rude or impolite language; and avoiding idle talk and gossip. But the concept of right speech goes far beyond what we shouldn’t do.
The premise of right speech also encourages us to engage in deep listening and to choose words that are useful and beneficial.
Although the Pali Canon was written more than two millennia ago, the challenges have not changed. With the proliferation of social media, the communication crisis has been exacerbated. It is all too common to witness words being used as weapons, even in the most peaceful corners our social media networks. We have grown accustomed to throwing words about like Molotov cocktails and then hiding behind the screen, with little concern for consequences.
No doubt the physical separation of social media detaches us from the humanity of others and empowers us to use speech recklessly.
But, we are at a crossroads in our social development. Fear, mistrust, divisiveness, hatred and prejudice are fueling wildfires across the globe and our words can easily become matches, rather than the soothing waters of right speech. The way we continue to communicate with one another from this point forward may well determine the future of humanity.
How easy it is to lift others up with our words when we remain focused on right speech.
We must remain focused on demonstrating respect, loving kindness, empathy and compassion with our words at all times. Our words must come from the heart. Even when disagreeing, it is possible to do so with conscientiousness and courtesy. Like any mindful practice in life, right speech must be contemplative and intentional. Spontaneous outpourings of words often result in confusion and dissonance.
Fully embracing the premise of right speech not only lifts up the people around us, it also enriches our own lives. Spreading joy and comfort through our words, spoken or written, will afford us a greater sense of peace.
May we go into this day, purposefully lifting others with our words.
Editor: Dana Gornall