Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Reflections on Buber's "origin(s) of conflict between me and my fellow men"

There are three principles in a man’s life, the principle of thought, the principle of speech and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. (Martin Buber)

How challenging, refreshing, emboldening and inspiring!!

Buber knows of what he speaks: himself. And the implications of his insight are mountainous. None of us say what we mean; and none of us do what we say we will do.

And the question hanging between the lines on this “page” is: “How do we adjust, both to forgive ourselves and others for these omissions, and to move in the direction of saying what we mean and doing what we say?”

One of the first steps in making change is to acknowledge the current reality, the precise state of our being. And that includes looking inward at how we think and feel about specific issues. It is not the practical sense issues, although these do comprise a part of our failure to communicate. When I utter a statement about what is it like for me to be with another, I have to examine whether or not my statement is a true reflection of my experience or, and this is more likely, a reflection of what I conceive to be what the other person would appreciate hearing. And the tension between those two realities frankly really never dissipates. In each encounter with another human being, we very often put our own need to be “liked” ahead of the truth about our experience. Being liked, is a short-cut miniscule wave of applause that takes the form of a smile, a tender touch, a sincere thank-you or perhaps another equally gracious response. And we have all been programmed to elicit these tiny “compliments” or pay-backs, or rewards for our initial “generosity.” You can hear such verbal exchanges every day in every office, store, factory, hospital, school, university, and even some churches. They comprise the liquid “engineering” that keeps the ethos of every organization, family and corporation from flying apart. And we have become so conditioned both to believe that these politenesses are necessary and that our mastery of the technique is essential for our literal survival.  Should we be “schooled” in the rhythm, the melody and the structure of these social graces, we have the opportunity to meet many interesting and perhaps ever provocative individuals who mirror our graces.

 If, however, some sand somehow penetrates the “gears” of our mood, our perceptions, our emotions, and even our sense of (in)justice, then the pattern of “keeping it light” and practicing the skill of “small talk” often rides off our rails of both patience and competence. We frequently revert to spontaneous outbursts of anger, disappointment, criticism and perhaps even libel and slander, whether we really wish to go “that far” or not. Not only do such outbursts fracture our decent, demure, and gentle public demeanour; they also have the potential to shatter the perceptions of the recipient of our explosions not only of our character but also of the potential for a relationship. We have, to a greater or lesser degree, each grown radar screens that pick up signals which if interpreted by our conscious mind as threatening or insulting, or demeaning, or scathing seem to provoke verbal and or emotional push-back that we can often spend considerable time explaining, and perhaps even recanting.

On the other hand, knowing how to express important and deep emotional responses in ways that are both clarifying and clearing is one of the most coveted of social skills. It requires considerable discipline, practice, reflective review and criticism, and more rehearsal. In fact, one of the current “masters” of this social skill is the current President of the United States, Barack Obama. After seven years of being thwarted by a Republican obstructionist Congress, on nearly every modest and not so modest proposal, and having to revert to executive orders, (one of which was overturned, by default, in a 4-4 tie on the Supreme Court, thereby endangering millions of Latino’s who could be deported) many ordinary people would be outraged, dismayed, discouraged and totally decimated. Obama, however, manages to express his disappointment, without in any way softening his positions and also without in any way disparaging the justices on the court, even though he has also been blocked, subverted from gaining a hearing and an up-or-down vote on his nominee for the court to replace deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Of course, Obama’s audience, when we hear his voice, is the global population, the leaders of the rest of the world, the key players in his own political party, his staff, and the many ambassadors serving the interests of the United States around the world. Leave it to Vice-president, Joe Biden, to tell Charlie Rose, in a Bloomberg interview, “We do get down to shouting at each other, when we are alone, so deep is the trust and the respect we have for each other!” Remarkable, on one level, and yet, really not so surprising. These two men have been through so much turbulence, policy debates, positions and rationales that would fill a library if they were all transcribed.

The controlled discipline of President Obama could, in part result from training in International Affairs (Columbia University) and Law (Harvard Law School). However, the clarity and the control of the character of the president. He does say what he means and offers a model for the whole world, whether those listening agree with his policies or not.

There is, however, a significant difference between politics, geopolitics, the law as articulated on the world stage through the world’s microphone and a grade one classroom, or a conversation on a date, of a conversation in a pub, or even a conversation with God. Rhetoric, as opposed to ordinary conversation, sets a very high bar in grammatical structure, vocabulary, syntax and balanced and parallel sentences. And with all of those disciplines comes a requirement to think through, to write or speak, and then to revisit and revise, to edit and to make clear. “On the fly” when we speak, we are not thinking about or operating on the same number and level of linguistic nuances. We are uttering thoughts and feelings that are, in themselves, forming as we speak. We are not worried or even thinking about how we will be reviewed, interpreted, and whether or not our meaning will be delivered or received as we intended it to be. And often, in an unplanned retort, we deliver a message for which we will spend time ‘making it right’ after it has been lifted, twisted and mis-represented multiple times. There are so many factors at play in our utterances, including our history with the people we are speaking to, including the subject we are discussing, the tenor of the daily water-cooler ‘talk’, the perceived expectations of our colleagues, our ‘background’ on the subject we are discussing...and the list goes on.

I do not say what I a minefield filled with both visible and buried political, diplomatic, psychological and relational IED’s as it were whether we are aware of their existence or not.

And the confusion and conflict that emerge from our speaking those things we do not mean fills novels, attracts both playwrights and theatre-goers, fills courtrooms and petitions, and is poured out of the reports prepared by social workers, police, medical doctors, coroners, journalists and clergy. And many of those written pages follow hours, weeks and months of face to face dialogue. And then, there are the intimate conversations in which individuals are more subject to highly volatile emotions, especially at the beginning of lover-lover relationships. And often the manner of speech is as important as the specific content. Questions like, “Does s/he love me?” and “Will s/he stay with me?” and “What will her/my parents think of the relationship?” and “Will these feelings still course through her/me in twenty years?” and “What kind of family will emerge from this relationship?” And, as we all know 90% of all communication is non-verbal; so body language, eye movement, the tilt of the head, the shrug of the shoulder, the posture of the arms and legs, all of these “signals” flow into a stream of  communication, frequently left to personal, subjective interpretation. For example, recently at an art show, a patron praised a specific piece of work directly to the artist, who immediately retrieved a box, interpreting the praise as a clear indication of a desire to purchase the piece. When she learned that the praise was discreet, and not an expression of intent to purchase, she immediately withdrew, embarrassed, and apologized profusely.

In school, at least in another century, students were taught about writing and reading skills, inference, connotation, denotation, figurative language, and all of these matters as they apply to specific pieces of both fiction and non-fiction. Never, except perhaps in a theatre/drama class, we were taught about the language of our bodies. Still such instruction is primarily dedicated to drama students, given their prospect of performing in amateur and professional theatre following their stint in school. Perhaps, for people in the human resource or sales industries, skills such as how to ‘stage’ an employment interview, or a dismissal interview, and client interview, the ‘closing’ (of the sale) interview are featured. However, such formal instruction, rehearsal and deployment are used mainly by public figures, politicians, reporters, and corporate executives who will have to make public presentations. Again, these skills have a tendency to separate the “performer” from the audience, and if they find their way into an informal conversation, the ‘performer’ will likely alienate the ‘other’.

Now, let’s pause and examine the second part of the Buber quote: I don’t do what I say (I am going to do). And this issue is even more complicated, not only for politicians but also for parents, and for all professional people in their encounter with others. The bests of intentions with the most ethical of persons can and do go awry. And while there are a plethora of reasonable (and not so reasonable) explanations for the derailings. Nevertheless, no matter the arena, the result is often one of an emotional betrayal. And none of us is immune from legitimate accusations that we have not done what we said we were going to do. The most blatant might be the marriage vow, pledging life-long loyalty and ‘obedience’ to the betrothed, with statistically some 40% in North America at least terminating before the death of one of the partners. Whether such terminations are mutual, ridden with conflict or not, they are empirical evidence of the failure to “do” what one has committed to doing. And none of us is exempt from both being the butt of betrayal, and the betrayer. We are not necessarily at the same time, or in the same situation, enmeshed in both sides of the betrayal. However, most of us spend much more time fretting over our having been betrayed, and almost no time reflecting on our impact on people we love by our act(s) of betrayal.

And, in both failing to say what I mean, and in failing to do what I say I will do, I join the human race, in engendering conflict, and angst and turmoil and upset lives, and even potentially decades of remorse and unpacking. However, the silver lining in this personal drama that attends each of our lives, comes from the reconciliations that some permit and encourage, from the insights that our pain help to unfold, and from the conversations and reflections that are quite literally inevitable so long as we breathe. And without those interpersonal conflicts, linked to and emerging from those private, internal conflicts that bubble and even sometimes boil into sleepless nights, a few extra drinks at the bar, some long walks into the night in the forest, and some decisions and revisions that are prompted by our previous omissions.

Just as the artist pays as much or more attention to the negative spaces on his/her canvas, so too, human beings are well advised to pay considerable attention to the negative space in our speech and our behaviour. Although such attention is not filled with that craved applause, nevertheless it can and will pay large dividends as the grey hairs replace the blond and the brown or black and we reflect on the canvas of our life. We will undoubtedly recall how history paid attention to what we said, failed to say, mis-spoke and also to what we said we would do and did not do. And those conflicts will comprise the ‘grist’ not only of our memories but also of our individuation, our becoming a self-before God, the long race to which we have all been invited.


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