Thursday, January 2, 2014

I Hesitated - January the Second

I had this idea about six weeks ago ... to challenge myself to a year of nothing but nice things to say.  And to be honest, the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable it made me. 

Isn't that strange?

I'm not, by nature, a terrible person, or even a negative person, but sometimes I can get grouchy, or I'm not feeling well, or I'm hungry, or tired, or I'm not careful, or I am simply mean.  I focus on the negative, and pretty soon, that's rubbing off into how I interact externally with other people and internally with myself.  I swear at someone who's cut me off in traffic.  Or I mentally criticize myself for a personal short-coming.

I started to wonder: even considering the relatively small number of times I choose to say or think something negative, by switching to nothing but nice things to say, would I be fundamentally changed?  Change is difficult, and the future is uncertain when one is making new choices.  Who I am right now is a function of what I have ever said to anyone and to myself.  If I had made other choices with my words over the entire course of my life so far, my life would be different.  I cannot so easily change what I look like, my life circumstances, who I associate with, or what my talents are, but I CAN change how I talk about and nurture these parts of myself and those around me.

I also worried that by sharing this personal challenge, I would make myself vulnerable to public disapproval or attacks.  How easy will it be for me to be truly honest with myself, face my shortcomings, and then work to become something different?

So it is January 2nd, and I have decided to give it a try.  At the very least, I will be adding more joy to the world than I am now, and at the very most, I will change myself for the better.


"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."  It's an idea simple enough that we teach it to small children.  Jesus tells us that we should love everyone as we love ourselves.  Kurt Vonnegut thought Jesus might have instead used the word "respect," and that idea of respecting another may be crucial when working to keep things nice or at the very least to hold my tongue.  The idea of a Golden Rule -- to treat others as you would like to be treated -- is included in most major religions and goes back thousands of years.  Certainly the Golden Rule includes the idea that we should not say anything to anyone that we would not want said to ourselves.

But we all say un-nice things: we complain, we put others down, we wield verbal barbs in moments of anger and frustration, we gripe and complain, and we laugh when we feel schadenfreude.  "Schadenfreude" is a German word meaning happiness at another's misfortunate (in English, the term actually means "harm joy.")  We experience this when we see a movie villain get what's coming to him, or when we see someone we don't like passed over for a job promotion.

The opposite of schadenfreude?  I had to go looking for it -- the closest bet is "mudita," a Buddhist term for the idea of sympathetic (or unselfish) joy.  Happiness for the happiness of others.  When I hear about another's accomplishment, am I able to feel truly happy for that person?  Or is my first instinct to feel jealousy or doubt?  All good things cannot be mine -- everyone in this world should have his own good things, and when I feel happy for someone else's happiness, am I not first adding to my own well-being.

Over the course of this year, I will attempt to be honest about my effort to pursue this very simple notion of saying something nice.  I admit that now that I've committed to it, I feel, already, happier and lighter.  But I'm still a little nervous.  

I invite you to join me.  My goal isn't perfection; my goal is improvement.  Let's find ways to make ourselves and those around us happier in 2014 with our words.

The challenge this week: I am going to try to be a gentle communicator and start to become aware of the situations and people that lead me into saying or thinking something decidedly not nice.


Something to think about:

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.” - Mahatma Gandhi