â€œOne of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.â€ -James Earl Jones
As early as I remember, I’ve taken delight in words. The loving words spoken by my mother, fantastic stories I read off the pages of a book, the sound of words in rhyme, the lyrics of a song that touches me…but most of all, the words spoken or written between me and others in communication.
Maybe it’s because I like words, I am very comfortable with using them. I’m no literary genius, but I come into my own when I have to express an idea, explain a concept, or communicate a sentiment. I was never too reticent about expressing my thoughts and emotions in words either, because more often than not, it just feels like a spring that bubbles forth from within, and it is matter-of-fact. To my family and close friends, more often than not, if I had a thought/doubt/sentiment about a person, he/she will not be kept in the dark about it for long. The reason always boils down to one thing… I don’t know from where I got it, but ever since young, I have a deep-seated conviction that open and honest communication was essential for any relationship to grow. And so, it was in those relationships I valued the most that I tried the hardest at establishing it.
I had soon to learn though, that few people are as forthcoming as I am. Because this came so easily and naturally to me, I tended to read others’ reticence at communication as a form of rejection or insincerity and was hurt by it many times. Case in point? My own darling brother. I used to tell him all kinds of stuff…confidences about how I felt about my friends, my dreams, I even told him about my crushes. And he liked that I told him stuff…but after a while, I realized that he didn’t do the same with me when he was growing up. That pained me for a while, but I learned a valuable lesson from it. People have different thresholds…and, more importantly, trust was never an entitlement, not even within the family. It had to be earned. I started reflecting on how my mother earned my confidence, realizing anew that she had virtually never forced or guilted a confidence from me. But somewhere around the time I was in Pr. 5, I had decided on my own that she was worthy of my trust, and henceforth I kept almost nothing from her.
You know the Aesop’s fable about the Wind and the Sun who had a competition to see who was stronger? Their wager was a traveller who had a cloak, and whichever one got the traveller to take off his cloak would win. The Wind blew with all its might, but the harder he blew, the closer the traveller wrapped his cloak around him. Then the Sun came out and shone with all its glory, and the traveller took off his cloak. In Briggs Myer’s words, “most people thaw in the warmth of genuine, uncritical understanding.” Confidence has to be won, trust to be earned…and patience and love to give the other the space and time to realize on his/her own that the trust would not be misplaced. I also had to learn what it meant to listen in order to understand, without the predisposition to judge, as that was perhaps my most ‘wind-like’ (and a very J-type) characteristic.
I am a very impatient person, and in my younger years, it took everything I had in me to wait and offer that “genuine, uncritical understanding” when I could not see any guarantee of success. But of course, Aesop knew what he was talking about…and though it took years, I eventually received (in terms of trust and confidence) everything I had hoped for.
Friends who have known me since my secondary school days have sometimes told me that I seem to have mellowed with the years…become less rigid in my principles. When I first started hearing that I had an attack of self-doubt. “Oh no. Am I losing my principles?!” Several more years of self-reflection and the study of philosophy later, I have found my own answer in one very simple phrase – ‘epistemic humility‘. This does not mean I doubt that I know anything (that would be skepticism), but that what I know is always still limited, and that I have blindspots that others, from a different location, may see better. And while I may still often feel certain about certain judgments regarding my life, and even of others’, I now always remind myself that I am still constantly expanding my own horizons to make better judgments about my own life. Who am I to make determinations about somebody else’s? Advice and counsel should always stop short of telling others what to do.
I used to hate hearing my mother tell me to ‘let it go’. I’m always protesting, “but but but… I know better! I can see where this is heading! He/she can’t see it…why can’t I tell him/her what to do?!” Whether it’s a good friend, or my own brother, asking me to let go and let the person make his/her own decisions is worse than asking me to let out blood. I could never win this debate with my mother though, because her trump card is always, “If you can’t let your friends/ John make their own decisions after already hearing what you have to say, what will you do when you have children?” And that’s her trump card because I know that as hard as it is for her (also a strong J-type btw), and as imperfectly as she does it, she gives me the time and space I need to make my own decisions, which I have since realized, is the only way for anyone to learn autonomy and accountability. I still have a long way to go, but I already know that my future children will be indebted to many people…either those who have shown me the wisdom of ‘letting go’ or those on whom I have practised many times the art of letting go :P
People are capable of much more than we usually give them credit for…even people with less experience and wisdom than ourselves. Afterall, were we not all at one time completely ignorant? If you’re in the position to help someone, a friend, a spouse, a sibling, a child, or even a parent, here’s a truth I’ve gleaned through experience: Love them, unconditionally. Believe in them. Do not chide them or begrudge them when they do not take your advice. Let them know and feel that even when their choices are different from the ones you would make, you trust that they are finding their own way responsibly. And always remember…our knowledge of even what’s best for us is limited by our experience. Let’s not impose our own imperfect views on another individual’s life…a life that is most likely very different in kind and need from our own.
*Added Caveat*** Lest I am misunderstood, I should clarify that I do not think trust is only reflected by ‘having no secrets’. There are many reasons why we would choose not to share confidences even with people we trust deeply. Learning to respect my own boundaries and that of others is also something I have picked up along the way. :)
An unforgettable ‘water-bottle’ experience in September 2005 which I remembered this morning. *nostalgic smile*
â€œNo words are necessary between two loving heartsâ€ – Unknown