Once upon a time I lived my life in black and white. I burned bridges all of the time – metaphorically not literally. My life was simple and yet not always easy. For the longest time I thought that the truth, my truth, was the right path. I used truth as both a weapon and a shield. I fantasized of a world where people, or at least the people important to me, embraced “truth” as almost a religion as outlined in Speaker for the Dead or Truth Machine (great books both, if you read Speaker for the Dead start with Ender’s Game).
At the time, I found it cathartic to explode toxic or complicated relationships. Sometimes those relationships were family and exploding them would have unintended consequences but I did it anyway. Truth, mine, was all. Simple but not easy. My husband at the time (and seriously you can trust someone who can write and speak authoritatively and authentically about butt pus) challenged me to ponder this tendency with “what good will come from this?”
And so, eventually, I learned to be cautious, patient, even prudent. Speaking those hard truths, exposing those thoughts perhaps better left hidden, tended to burn bridges. Words have power and can never be unsaid. We’ve been divorced far longer than we were ever married, and still I hear his voice in my head before any major bridge burning truth outburst “what good will come from this?” I am grateful to him for the relationships I’ve maintained, the bridges I have not burned, over the years.
These days I meld this question with another. I was raised with the value of doing unto others what I would want done unto me…and, it took me going to business school and getting pragmatic advice from my brother to realize that the right thing, the best thing almost always, is to give other people what they want not what I want. Hardly anyone wants the unadulterated truth, even if that’s what I want. I wasted years giving it to others. Maybe Jewel has it right and only kindness matters.
I don’t know.
Kindness is not my best skill. But most days I try to focus on giving other people what they want and keeping my mouth shut if no good will come from the words I want to say.
And, I still wonder.
Someone who challenges and inspires me, who I respect above all others, sent me this quote recently. “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” His moral compass shines brightly, and has served as a beacon to me over the last few years.
What do my words left unsaid say about me?
Seth Godin wrote recently, in a post entitled You Don’t have to Pander, “Merely giving the people what they want is a shortcut to banality, mediocrity and invisibility.” Ouch.
And most days, I miss the clarity, the black and white, the simplicity my life had before I became so cautious. A few week ago, I nuked a bridge over a misalignment of values. After weeks of uncertainty, it took me perhaps 30 seconds to decide. It had been years (decades?) since I torched a bridge so completely. It was not a graceful moment, terrible execution. And yet it felt like a breath I’d been holding for years was finally exhaled.