The old English nursery rhyme goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. The thought behind this rhyme was most likely to not have a child succumb to bullying or teasing, to be strong and resilient. Learning healthy emotional language is a tough subject because we often make the wrong assumptions or take things personally. We all know someone that has been hurt by the words of someone else. We all know someone that has never forgiven or been forgiven by someone because of those words. For most folk’s harsh words have caused enormous pain and they remember them like a stubborn elephant. You can Have the Talk of a Life Time a lot easier and healthier when we learn not to make assumptions and try to not take things personally.
In 1980, my father got remarried after my mother died. The result of this union was a new step brother, Harvey. On the first Thanksgiving after the marriage, I found myself sitting across from Harvey at the dinner table. Typical of a Calhoun get together, the noise was thunderous with everyone talking and no one listening, an art form the family had perfected. Harvey was extremely passionate with his food, stacked high like a mountain and falling over the edges of his plate. Much like a hog at a trough he ate with intensity. Before long, Harvey refilled up his plate for round two. I decided unwisely to tease him at that moment by saying: “Harvey, make sure you get enough to eat!” and our history changed in that moment. Harvey immediately emotionally shut down and became catatonic.
Later that same night, the phone rang and Harvey was madder than a wet hornet. He vehemently said: “I am as mad as hell and I am not going to take it any longer”. I did not want to tell Harvey that his quote was actually from the movie Network for fear of him taking me out to the wood shed and the for the obvious reason that humor was not appropriate at the moment. Harvey was at his wits end and I was the target of his anger. Together we decided it was best to deal with this subject face to face. As a result of my stupid remarks, I drove 1-1/2 hours one way that night to meet him for coffee and to help him process the day and to understand why he took what I said so personally. At the same time, I was making assumptions about why he got so mad and believed it was about me. After a few cups of Joe, I learned that his father would physically beat him if he ever left any food on his plate. Sometimes in life, you can’t make this crap up. Harvey had indeed taken my comment personally, but I was the triggering mechanism. Cleary, I had made bad assumptions about his anger. I was able to communicate that I was guilty of bad humor and really had no intention of hurting him. He was able to be real and vulnerable and let a new step-brother in on a painfully personal traumatic story. Thank goodness we made the effort to talk, share and build a bridge of understanding.
30 years later, I was asked to read at Harvey’s funeral. I could not help but reflect upon that first Thanksgiving we had spent together. In hindsight, I really don’t know if it was dumb luck or courage that made us get together that night. Life is indeed short. We must all make a sincere effort to Have the Talk with the folks we love and care about. Forgiveness and second chances are a good thing. We do not want our life story to be defined by misunderstanding, assumptions and taking things too personally. Give yourself a gift and Have the Talk. Be realistic and understand that developing a heathy emotional language will be a work in progress simply because we are human. Do your best, forget the rest. We all are blessed when we find connection, love, good conversation and a great cup of Joe!