Saturday, June 21, 2008

Discretion and Valor

There's an old saying about discretion being the better part of valor. This is a saying which appears to have little relevance in current American culture as being "brave" enough to say whatever you think whenever you think it is seen as proof of ego integrity. I have seen ample evidence of this throughout my real and virtual lives.

When I was still posting on Usenet, I tried to always be polite and civil in my discourse with others and one of the brasher sorts accused me of being hopelessly neurotic and needing approval for not rudely and openly contradicting and disagreeing with people. It seems not to occur to some people that holding your tongue has more to do with trying to consider the feelings of others than seeking their approval.

This is a lesson that I've only gained through maturity and not one that came easily for me as I am straightforward (and opinionated) by nature. When I was younger, I was hopelessly blunt with everyone and I'm sure I hurt a lot of people. Sometimes, I remember some of my more strident attempts to bully people into seeing things my way and cringe. The worst by far occurred during my first job as a counselor at a halfway house for the mentally ill. One of my "charges" was a 19-year-old young woman who had been in a mental health facility off and on and, while staying in the halfway house, had gotten pregnant. She had no income, support, or mental capacity to care for a child in a proper fashion. She wasn't stupid, though she was painfully immature and had mood problems. The future of any child she produced was going to be bleak if she raised it and I tried to coerce her into not having it.

The results of my efforts were that she went to the program director (my boss) and complained so severely that he called me in for a little talk about my role as a program worker and he transferred her to another counselor. He didn't push me to accept what he said, but he did ask me if it really was my place to "enlighten" people about what was "right" or "best" for them. At that time, I was too immature to get the message and asserted that I believed it very much was my role if I wanted to "help" people.

These days, I hope that I've learned that there are many times when it's better not to say anything than to say something, even when my intention is well-meaning and not based in the arrogance that I know everything (which is what I possessed in abundance just out of college). Recently I had a frustrating experience with a student who I'm helping write college essays. Invariably, she wasn't adding all of my corrections and I thought she'd been overriding my choices with her own views of what was grammatically correct. Since I was making a final (supposedly cursory) proofread of these papers on my own time, it was starting to annoy me that she wasn't being more careful. I thought long and hard about what to say and how to say it because I didn't want to upset her, but I also didn't want to have to make the same corrections three and four times.

In the end, I decided to ask her to be more careful in the softest possible fashion. She still got upset and thought I was angry with her. However, she finally revealed to me after over a year of working with her that she sometimes entered corrections wrong because she couldn't read my cursive writing very well. She should have told me this of her own volition, of course, but she was trying to spare my feelings just as I was trying to spare hers. In the end, when she admitted she couldn't read my writing all the time, she said she was sorry for saying such a "rude" thing.

Sometimes holding your tongue in the interest of peace or other people's feelings can cause communication bottlenecks or problems. As some of you know, I had problems with my in-laws which lead to my stopping my other blog. I've had problems for years with my brother-in-law and have always held my tongue while he ran off and complained to his parents and sister at every perceived slight. While I don't think it was the wrong choice to not involve others in the conflicts my CH and I had with his brother, I do wonder in retrospect if a little less discretion might have added some balance to the views they hold of us. It's one of those things which I'll never know for sure.

I've reached the conclusion that there is a sacrifice to be made no matter how you choose to communicate. If you say nothing, you can spare feelings and keep the peace, but relationships may not progress and important problems may never be worked through. The trick is to figure out when it's best to hold your tongue and when you're better served by loosening it.


badmoodmike said...

I totally agree. Keeping your mouth shut is liable to cause as many problems as opening it.

My solution: be a recluse - see or speak to no one...ever!

Leo said...

Sometimes it's best to say nothing. But I also believe that sometimes you have to consider yourself first and others second. If you still don't feel comfortable in those situations (and I have before) then you might have to remove yourself from the situation temporarily or even permanently (and if it's family, you have to "love them from afar"). Or I could be wrong.

Welcome back btw.