What Did You Say?

My youngest son is studying Spanish, and complaining about it every step of the way. I don’t blame him. I think some people are hard wired to learn a second language and others not. He & I are in the not category.
Helping him learn Spanish though, has led me to ponder English. I’ve heard that English is one of the hardest languages to learn, and I believe this is true. I think of how easy it is to misinterpret what we are hearing or reading.
For Example:
The Warranty. When we first moved into my current house my allergies were really bad. I’m allergic to molds, which happen to be the smallest of the spores, and most difficult to eradicate. We purchased a high-tech filter for our furnace. It was expensive, but we didn’t mind because it had a “life time warranty”. I believed this because I had read it. Later, when I reread the “warranty” it said this: This filter is guaranteed for the lifetime of the filter. I laugh now, but I was kind of pissed at having been duped. Now, when I read warranties, I clearly see the “lifetime guarantee” in it’s limitations. The fine print always qualifies it, by saying “from manufacturer defect” or some other such nonsense, which effectively voids the warranty.
The “Diss”. Low self-esteem and other personal issues contribute to countless examples of the belief that we’ve been dissed. My most recent “diss” involves a program in which survivors’ of ovarian cancer tell our stories to medical students in an effort to raise awareness. I had a presentation marked on my calendar but was unsure if I was one of the speakers for that day. I emailed the woman in charge and asked her if she needed me that day. She wrote back “you are welcome to come”. As I read this I believed her to be saying “well I guess you can come, but I’d rather you didn’t”. Later, when I read the sentence to my therapist, she started laughing at my interpretation. She said that most likely the woman wasn’t sure who was going to show up, and she didn’t want to admit that, and/or put undue pressure on me, and that in no way was this a diss. How many other times has an innocuous comment, that has nothing to do with me, been interpreted by me as a diss?
The Promise. A close relative of mine is going through treatment for rectal cancer. He is horrified at the thought of a colostomy bag. Aren’t we all? He went to Sloan Kettering to make sure he was getting state of the art treatment. They are using a protocol developed by a Brazilian doctor, and he believes that he was told the following:
“80% of the people in this protocol have complete remission (tumors were gone) and the other 20% had their tumors shrunk enough that I they were able to have it surgically removed without a bag. “
Needless to say, he was elated that he now had a 100% chance of not having a bag. Imagine how stunned he was when, after having completed the protocol, he was told his tumor had not responded and that he would most likely end up with the bag. I wasn’t there, so I have no idea what the Dr. actually said, but my guess is it went something like this: “the tumors that respond to this treatment have a 100% success rate…..”. See the difference? Subtle, yet life altering.
The Accusation. My ex and I broke up 5 months after I completed chemo, which happened to be one of our son’s senior year of high school. A horrible time for all of this to happen. Since he is my least vocal child, I have been extremely concerned about his well being. This past summer he spoke with someone at my therapists’ office (at my insistence). Later, my therapist, having spoken with his therapist but not wanting to divulge anything he had said, told me this: “he is taking his anger out on you”. She told me this over the phone, prior to our session, and I wrote down 3 questions for her, one of which was: “so why does he think this is all my fault?”. She sort of rolled her eyes and said no, dummy, that’s not what I said, and that’s not what he thinks. I interpreted her sentence with my own feelings of failure, and my feelings changed the meaning of the statement. (she didn’t actually call me a dummy – that’s my interpretation of what she said!)
The Not Quite A Lie, Lie. Every time I asked my ex if he was cheating on me he would take at least 30 seconds to answer. If this seems normal to you, imagine you have just asked someone a question, then count out 30 seconds. I think you’ll see how odd and uncomfortable this is. Hindsight being 20/20, I now understand that his answer was not a lie. His answer was “come check up on me if you want. You can follow me around, or come see where I am every night”. This was, of course, a non-answer, neither confirming nor denying his escapades, and as such was the not quite a lie, lie. He knew that I would never take him up on this offer, for a variety of reasons. (This strategy worked for years, until I was ready to take him up on his offer, and invited myself on one of his dates, at which point he uttered an actual lie.)

The author of the Four Agreements suggests we be precise in our language, both the words we use and the meaning we ascribe to others words. Our language is filled with not just our words, but also our pain, our joy, our grief, our fear, our hope. How can we adequately understand our language given it’s grammatical and emotional complexity?
I have no answer for this, except to reference what Jeff Brown, author of Spiritual Graffiti, has said about Boundaries. After spending a lifetime taking everything personally, he has come to realize that most of what goes on has nothing to do with him at all. The comments people make, the actions they take, the words they write, the promises they make, have nothing to do with us; they are about the speaker/writer.

The Warranty is meant to benefit and protect the company, not to personally hurt you as a consumer.
The “Diss” is most likely not a diss. It most likely has nothing to do with you at all.
The Promise comforts and benefits the Promiser, not the Promised, and is most often sincerely meant by the Promiser, but often misinterpreted by the Promised.
The Accusation often comes from the Accusers personal issues, not from anything you have done (unless you have done something wrong, of course!).
The Not Quite A Lie, Lie though, I am not really sure about. In my example, it comes from a person I need to avoid, for it is telling of that person’s inability to interact authentically. Are the circumstances in which the Not Quite a Lie, Lie is okay? I haven’t thought of one yet, but will continue to think about it.
I think the most we, or perhaps more accurately I can do, is realize the distinction between what is actually being said, versus how we might interpret it. We/I should try to be clear in our speech, and honor our own boundaries in the words we speak, and the way we interpret the words of others.

Given the fact that my intuition meter is clearly on the fritz, I think I’ll try to 30 second “think it over” break before I speak or interpret, even if it is sort of creepy.

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