The put down has a high profile in our culture.
One of the favourite topics around the coffee pot and the beer jug is running down other people while TV sit-coms are built around it. We chuckle when people use their wit like a rapier to impale an absent “friend.” We even talk about our spouses, parents and children in less than glowing terms.
Running down others is a popular sport played by both sexes, although men like to think women are better. We relish the thrust of the well-honed insult, the riposte of the polished slur and the flick of the slashing innuendo.
Even if we have vowed otherwise, whenever we’re in a group where someone absent is being verbally attached, we’re drawn into the action; we can’t seem to help ourselves. Even if we’re conscious enough to realize what we’re doing, we don’t always disengage even though we know we’re de-humanizing them and demeaning ourselves.
But the group attack is less harmful than the one delivered in person, eyeball to eyeball. If the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can start a hurricane in Florida, imagine how a cutting or thoughtless remark can ripple through someone’s day. It’s not hard to envision how even a little or ridicule or a little anger can adversely affect someone giving a presentation or writing an exam.
But, paradoxically, in spite of our willingness to verbally attack others, we are awed when we meet people who always has a kind word for everyone. Being in their presence raises the serotonin levels of everyone around them yet we don’t strive hard enough to be like them.
“I will speak ill or no man … and speak all the good I know of everybody,” said Ben Franklin, which might explain why so many people spoke highly of him and why history remembers him so fondly.
That should be our goal. Indeed, it’s a national avocation in China, where “face” has been one of the pillars of its civilization for more than 2,000 years.
“Face is probably the most fundamental facet of Chinese life — business, professional, personal and family,” said author Ernie Tadla, a former West Kelowna man who worked in China for seven years and married into a Chinese family.
“It is showing respect to the individual by protecting their good reputation, public dignity, prestige and self-esteem. You never disagree in public or to their face, never argue, never ridicule, joke about, confront, and denigrate another person.
"You always present their good side, their strong points in person and behind their back.”
In the book, Bono in Conversation, the rock star tells about a meeting Martin Luther King was having with his advisers, who were complaining about the new attorney general. Finally, King ended the meeting.
“We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy because that, friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.”
Bono echoes that sentiment. “Find the light in (your opponents), because that will further your cause. And I’ve held onto that very tightly, that lesson.”
We could use the bull’s-eye approach to spreading kindness and light. We can start by speaking well of ourselves, then our children, our spouses, our parents.
As our loved ones head off to school, university or a job, we can ensure they leave with positive words ringing in their ears, and are praised for doing well rather than ridiculed when they don’t.
Too often in our desire to ensure the people we love measure up, we tear them down. We hammer at their perceived weaknesses to try to make them strong until eventually all they see are their deficiencies.
The poem Children Learn What They Live By, written by an unknown author, starts like this:
“If a child lives with criticism/He learns to condemn.
“If a child lives with hostility,/He learns to fight.
“If a child lives with ridicule/He learns to be shy.”
That’s also true of adults because the child we were is still in all of us, no matter what our age.
We can be the people who always have a kind word to say about everyone. We can be an example by our actions and our words; we can refuse to participate — but without judging — when someone is being verbally assaulted.
“We don’t see that we are all teachers,” writes San Diego Zen master Joko Beck.
“Everything we do from morning to night is a teaching; the way we speak to someone at lunch, the way we transact our business at the bank, our reaction when the paper we submit is accepted or rejected… everything we do and everything we say reflects our practice.”
The universe — and our immediate neighbourhood — would be a better place if we treat everyone as if they were perfect, whole and complete, if we see them for what they could be, if we praise their strengths rather than point out their perceived flaws.
We’re not likely to run into many perfect beings in the line-up at Tim Horton’s, but nothing in our job description says we have to judge others — or ourselves — because they don’t conform to how we think the universe should be run.
Religion and science preach that we are, at some deep level, one. We can call that spirit or energy, but we are the me that is we, and when we treat someone poorly, we do it to ourselves.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” Hebrews 10:24 proclaims.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.