‘But it’s the truth. Isn’t the truth a good thing?’ A friend had asked for my input about a tricky situation, a conflict with someone else that was escalating via electronic messages. When I told them I thought their response was too much, that it should be pared back, cooled down, they – quite rightly – pointed out that everything they proposed to say was true. At that moment a detailed, truthful response seemed, to my friend, the best course of action. I could empathise; when one is the recipient of poorly moderated words – these ones were blunt yet sharp (funny how words can be both) – it’s very tempting to speak frankly in return. However, I knew in my bones that offering up the draft response would be akin to pulling the pin on a hand grenade and chucking it at the other person. Even had my friend managed to lob it as far as Johannes Vetter does with a javelin, then run a few hundred metres in the other direction as fast as Usain Bolt, it was still going to send off one almighty bang and create irreparable structural damage to the relationship. Sometimes irreparable damage might be one’s intended result, but I didn’t figure that was desired outcome in this case. After all, one’s intention can change from day to day, not to mention hour to hour. This was a letting-off-steam moment. I suggested de-mining some of the text. ‘So, I’m the one who has to swallow it down?’ was the next question put to me. Pretty much, was my take on it. Eventually we decided that not all of it needed to be swallowed (that leads to emotional indigestion), but a lot had to pushed aside.
The interaction made me think about those of us who emote naturally and let it all out, those of us who chew the inside of our cheeks and stew, and those rare enlightened beings who let it all go. Let’s discount the saints for now and agree that most of us tend to fall into the first two categories. Whether your character is one with a tendency to repress or one with a tendency to unleash, both, when taken to their extreme, can damage, and there are times when those who seal their lips ought to prise them open a bit more and those who rush to spill their thoughts might be better served to hold back. The hard bit is tempering what and who we are whilst being true to yourself. For example: if my friend were to hold back all of what they really wanted to say (on the basis of unsound advice from me) only to replace it with something they didn’t actually believe just to peace-keep and mollify, that would be as bad as the hand grenade.
As often happens to me when an idea is simmering, I found this line when I wasn’t looking for it: ‘It is not required, indeed it may be wrong, to show all we feel or all we think. What is required of us is not to show what we do not feel or think, for that is to be false.’ It’s from George McDonald, a nineteenth century Scottish poet, author and Minister. It’s not exactly a new idea, indeed George wrote it nearly two hundred years ago, but I’m not sure we see it modelled as much as we used to. My interpretation of it is that we do well to hold back a little in what we say or write, not to put everything out there, even our version of the truth because: a.) it might be hurtful; b.) what you think might not be relevant; and c.) some of your thoughts are nobody’s business but your own. It’s the basis of diplomacy, the practice of good manners, an exercise in pragmatism, an act of simple kindness. All this and more.
Then another voice pipes up inside my head, asking me questions and rolling its eyes at me as I get carried away with suggesting that ‘holding back’ is the foundation to basic decency. This voice is borderline angry. What about practicing immediacy? What about speaking up and calling out wrongs straight away? What about nipping bad behaviour in the bud? What about LETTING OFF STEAM? (The voice is yelling now.) The voice has a point, Sometimes the old knee-jerk is just what’s needed. Who am I to interfere and stop my friend sending their fiery message just because it doesn’t fit my sage advice of the moment? After all, haven’t I let rip myself and didn’t it feel good.? Like that time I pressed the nuclear button somewhere on Edinburgh’s ring road last summer when a white van cut me up and yelled at me too many times and I plumbed depths I didn’t know I had in order to access vocabulary I didn’t know I knew. My explosion shocked me to my core, it felt fantastic and I don’t want it to happen again for a very long time.
Here’s what it boils down to: we have a choice every moment as to whether to respond or react. And if you come to me for advice, I’ll get you to hold back on the reaction and take time to respond, and that advice will not always be right. Tame your devils, but not too much, for they are part of you. I believe what Rilke said was true: ‘If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.’