Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

"No Really, It's Fine. Never Mind."

Talking Positive and Negative when we can’t make up our minds

Something’s not right. Or maybe you’re just too picky. It’s really fine and you should just stop complaining and be more grateful for what’s going well. Count your blessings.

But not if the only way it’s going to improve is for you to admit that something’s amiss.

Except nothing’s perfect so why give voice to the imperfections?

You’re driving your friends crazy.  They hear your sighs, see that you’re sad and frustrated. They ask you what’s the matter and you tell them. They try to help, but as soon as they join you in thinking about it, you say “Oh no, it’s really OK.” So they let it drop. But you don’t. You sigh more, so they bring it up again, and again you duck out, and they think, “Jeez, do you want to talk about it or not?”

Well yes and no.  I mean you’ve got to speak your truth right? If there’s a problem, you’re not going to get anywhere by ignoring it.  You’ve got to face squarely into your challenges. You don’t want to be in denial.  Call a spade a spade. Say, “this isn’t working.” You can’t solve a problem when you aren’t brave enough to admit there is a problem. The first step toward a solution is acknowledging that you need one.

But you’re no whiner; you’re an optimist and a realist.  You hate when people nag about things that are no big deal, problems that will take care of themselves. Pessimism is a downer.  It makes problems worse.  And besides, you scare yourself when you give voice to what’s wrong. When your friend joins you in thinking about what’s bugging you it can get way out of hand. Shaking up your groove can cause an avalanche of despair, the groove clogged by the boulders of disappointment that caves into it. But then you wouldn’t be shaking up your groove if it weren’t already clogged.

If it’s any comfort you are not alone.  “Should I give voice to what’s not working?”  is a problem we all deal with, even when we’re not voicing problems to friends, but just to ourselves using our inside voices.

We find all sorts of language aimed at answering that question once and for all. Always speak your truth (speaking your truth is a good thing, implying that the answer is always yes). Never complain (complaining is a bad thing, implying that the answer is always no).

The answer isn’t always either. Airing your problems can dry them down to shriveled nothings, but can also feed them the air that enflames them. Keeping your problems under the surface can decompose them into humus or make them fester, infections that spread and breed.  Those speculative tradeoffs are captured in the sigh, an impulse to speak suppressed, but just barely, your disappointment just below or on top of the surface, hard to tell which.

And if your problem is with your friend, airing them can be threatening.  Tell your partner “I’m not happy” and you open a whole constitutional convention about what’s not working and whether you even belong together.

My articles leave many people dissatisfied.  “So what’s the answer?” they ask.

I’m not saying there’s no answer but that there are different ones, particular to the situation at hand, answers that depend on outcomes we can’t entirely predict.

I’m more into identifying the questions, questions we all deal with, questions you can’t even begin to answer if you pretend you can live by any of those one-size-fits all solutions like “always speak your truth,” or “never complain.” 

I love the Serenity Prayer which speaks well to this question, the serenity to shut up; the courage to speak out. I love the prayer itself but also its highly adaptable form:

Grant me the silence to ignore what will take care of itself, the voice to shine light on what needs attention, and the wisdom to know the difference.

And I like to inventory and neutralize the weighted words that tip the scale as though simple wisdom is at hand, terms like “speak your mind” (good), complain (bad), read the writing on the wall (good), whine (bad), expressing your feelings (good), grouse (bad), give constructive feedback (good), nag (bad). 

There are lots of ways to neutralize these term’s moral loadednes. One I’ve recently discovered is making oxymorons out of them, terms that pit the good and bad against each other.

For example:

To whine your truth

Constructive complaining

Nagging the writing on the wall

Sweating the small elephants in the room

 

Spineless equanimity

Gentle shutting the hell up

Gagging your truth

Diplomatically stuffing it

Don't sweat the  

 

Call em “oxymorals.”

Here’s a short skit beautifully acted and somewhat related.

And my favorite poem on the subject:

Talking In Bed

Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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