Sticks, Stones, and the Effect of Language

About a million years ago, a proto-human picked up a stick and bludgeoned a deer with it, and voilà! dinner. And ever since, this was the way of mankind. Rather than talk things through, we communicated with sticks, some pointy, some thick and club-like with stones lashed to them. Later, we developed language, a way of describing all those sticks. We needed words as a delivery system for our more complex thoughts. And eventually, we would develop insults, and later, passive-aggressive tones. Hooray!

About a million years after this stick incident occurred, we were taught a pearl of wisdom that said words used against us were not going to harm us. This “sticks and stones” maxim reminded us that insults were the last refuge of the ignorant, and no words could injure us, no matter how harmful. It was a way of fending off bullies, by equating them to knuckle-dragging, thick-sculled cave men. The thing is, those insults and verbal jabs do take their toll. I argue that being punched does less harm in most cases, especially when I was a middle-schooler being punched by a pint-sized assailant.

But the words are sometimes used as ammunition by people other than our classmates and peers. Teachers and parents were capable of much more harm to us. I never would have believed that grown-ups could inflict such cruelty, but I was twelve, and I grew up believing that adults knew what was best for us. But they were as clueless as any 30-something today, perhaps even more so. At least now, people have a wealth of information at their disposal, practically the entire repository of human knowledge by way of the internet. You might expect there could be no excuse for being ignorant, and yet many of us are. We should know better, but we don’t.

Back to that sticks and stones analogy. Physical injuries tend to heal completely. There are of course cases where lasting damage occurs. Broken bones, like those in the little phrase, may heal, but it might affect the way you move further on. I broke my thumb when I was 14 (I was practicing throwing punches after being tripped earlier that day, and my thumb caught the edge of the chair and went “crack!”) That hurt like hell, and I felt really, really stupid. But the physical pain went away after a while, and my body “forgot” the pain. Decades later, when the barometer falls or when geese migrate, my thumb gets stiff or a little sore. It’s not my body “remembering” the original injury. Instead, this is a lasting result. Be that as it may, this injury troubles me a lot less than some of the things people said to me over the years. Even though the words dissipated in the atmosphere just after being spoken, they still echo in my mind to this day.

You see, words can indeed cause long-term emotional pain, far beyond what a physical injury might have. We must therefore be extremely careful when choosing our words. We might start by developing effective feedback skills. This might be one of the most important parts of being a manager or any kind of leader. Saying the wrong thing can create problems further down the road. It is very difficult to undo the damage once this happens. You cannot un-say the wrong thing. Positive yet constructive criticism is like a precious resource, because it is rare that we receive it, and not very many people know how to deliver it. Saying something like, “I’d like to tell you where I see your strengths,” rather than, “do you know what your problem is?” for instance.

Once we have delivered valuable feedback, we can encourage others to learn this skill, as they begin to appreciate its worth. It will be like currency in a world where good communication is rare yet valuable. Right now I fear it is rare but unappreciated. Eventually, as we mature, we do see the value of it, but by then a subsequent generation has already been at the helm of our society. It’s important for teachers to develop this skill and pass it on. It needs to begin early on in a child’s development, earlier than we thought in the old way of thinking. Back then, children were not regarded as contributors to our society, but our understanding of the brain’s development has improved, and we know better now, so we tell ourselves.

Words have amazing power. We use them to inspire one another, to incite crowds, to soothe, and to charm. The right words are absolutely necessary for certain events, like toasting the bride and groom, delivering a eulogy, or giving someone bad news. Our words can injure. Words can be a weapon. Words can even heal. With the right words, a skilled negotiator can change the world more than any number of rockets and tanks. And the simple statement of, “whatever” can stop some of us in our tracks. Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can injure you for a lifetime. So be careful with what you say.

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Violent

Plenty has been published in literature, produced in films and television to depict (or predict) a world where violent behavior had all but been eliminated due to a draconian system of justice, where even petty theft or vandalism could result in severe penalties. It goes without saying this is the west’s impression of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), true or not. In the 1980’s we were instructed on what life in the Soviet Union was like, how the Russian people had no freedoms, no choice. The indoctrination of American youth during the Cold War could have been as equally oppressive as any Communist regime we imagined.

Singapore is famous for administering harsh punishments for seemingly insignificant offenses like littering or vandalism. They are very proud of their low crime rate, and it should be obvious why that is. So one might ask himself, why don’t more countries do this? Before attempting to answer this, I am reminded of something that puzzled me for years. Japan has very strict gun laws, severely restricting gun ownership, limiting sales, and granting the government shockingly sweeping authority regarding firearms, at least by American standards (but the US has fairly relaxed gun laws by comparison to most of the world). In Japan, perhaps as a result of these policies, nearly all gun violence has been eliminated. The big question is whether restricting gun ownership has resulted in a reduction of gun-related incidents, or was it something else?

I posed this question to someone who lived in Japan, and he told me something I did not expect. He is a gun rights advocate, and, like me, has had experience with firearms from an early age. Despite this, he and I don’t agree on every aspect of gun control. That said, he told me that the reason there is almost no gun violence in Japan is not because guns are hard to get hold of, but that the Japanese culture figures significantly into the equation. Of course, there are guns in Japan. But even the Yakuza gang rarely uses guns to commit crimes. Consequently, homicides in Japan are pretty uncommon. It’s worth noting that gun violence in Canada is also rare, even with dramatically fewer restrictions over gun ownership. What, then, is the explanation?

As a means to deter crime, I suppose courts in the US could throw people in prison for nearly anything, like spitting on the sidewalk or jaywalking. Many municipalities have passed some crazy laws that stay on the books, but we typically don’t incarcerate people for overdue library books. (I’m reminded that I need to write about Emmett Till, the black teen who was brutally murdered for allegedly making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham. In the Jim Crow South, and elsewhere in the US, simply being black was a crime.) Looking at our past, one must conclude that America possesses a most violent culture, one that can barely be contained. The US is chock full of guns. Our art is violent. We have been in a continual state of war since the beginning of the 21st century. We are constantly exposed to violence through video games, television, and film. Simply put, we are a violent people.

Could we eliminate crime by making the punishments so severe that they would serve as a deterrent? Many states still administer the death penalty, and yet capital crimes are still committed. This doesn’t appear to be the solution. One thing that is certain: violence tends to bring about more violence. I admit I have thought about making certain individuals wish they’d never been born. I won’t go into details. Is this something in the human genome? Are we taught to be violent? Can we unlearn this tendency? This may not be something we can overcome in the next 100,000 years. If that depletes your last hopes, do not despair. Humanity should be able to progress if we don’t destroy ourselves first. Carl Sagan was confident we could reach the stars with this contingency in mind. We are continually evolving, but that takes time, and our evolutionary gains have not kept pace with our technological advances. In other words, we’ve become efficient killers with our advanced weapons, but we haven’t developed the ability to conquer our base instincts. We are dangerous animals until that happens.

Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

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Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.

I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

One Star

I make purchases from Amazon.com a lot. I can get practically everything I need online. I shop around for the best deal, not necessarily the lowest price, and I value the customer reviews. On Amazon, customers are encouraged, rather, cajoled into leaving some feedback on their experiences with their purchases. It is important to note that not all Amazon reviews are from actual Amazon customers, and the site recently implemented a change that gives greater weight to verified purchasers. But I still think it’s worth something when I’m shopping for a product, and someone has something, anything, to say about their experience, no matter where they made their purchase.

When I’m shopping online, especially on Amazon (the rating/reviewing feature is ubiquitous on the web these days), I pay close attention to how many reviews a product has as well as the proportion of 1-star reviews there are to the total. For example, a Texsport 6 person dome tent has an overall rating of 3.2 out of five stars. More than half are 4- and 5-star ratings. But the number of 1-star ratings is 12%. By contrast, North Gear Camping 6 person dome tent has an overall 2.4-star rating. 60% of the reviews rate it 1 star, the lowest rating. To be fair, this tent is much less expensive than the Texsport product. But price is not an indicator of quality in all cases. Yes, you get what you pay for, but slapping a Kelty logo on a tent doesn’t always make it better. It’s worth noting that the North Gear tent received only 5 reviews.

I like to read the 1-star reviews. They’re sometimes off target, blaming the shipper, rating the product poorly because it arrived damaged. Sometimes a negative review is given because the buyer was unhappy with customer service, which is a valid reason to be dissatisfied. And once in awhile the customer is just telling us shoppers about their particular experience and not necessarily that the product is defective or inadequate. But I value the negative reviews almost more than the positive ones. That being said, it’s human nature to complain when something goes wrong rather than to sing praises when things are just okay.

Do I want myself rated? Not necessarily, but I do subject myself to feedback when I speak in Toastmasters. After some time you do develop thicker skin, not that people are brutally honest in their assessments. Maybe they should be, but we don’t want to scare anyone off. If we could speak face-to-face with those online merchants, would we be willing to be so frank, or in some cases, cruel? Probably not. The ostensible anonymity of the web makes it easier for people to be more “honest.” If you read Youtube comments, you will see that it often goes too far. And people are uncivil in their comments to what end? They very often do not offer constructive feedback, and they complain about things that cannot be changed. The worst of them are openly racist or homophobic. And it gets a lot worse.

That 1-star review might be a very good thing, when it is offered in earnest of making a difference. Telling someone that I didn’t like something without offering a suggestion for improvement is a pointless endeavor. I work harder every day to be more constructive. Of course, sometimes I just complain. I do it here. I’m probably doing it right now. There’s value in the negative. It enables us to hear about ways to improve, provided the review process is being handled the right way. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but we need honesty without too much emotion to get in the way. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our opinions be heard. And don’t use the word “humble”. Opinions are bold. They’re part of our makeup. And they matter, to us at least.

Most people won’t bother to offer feedback. It’s overwhelming, actually. The other day I was watching an awesome video on Youtube. It had, at the time, over 800,000 views. Disproportionately, it had 7,000 likes. That’s less than 1 percent! You might have noticed that many YouTubers solicit for likes and subscriptions. They practically beg. And it’s no effort at all. But people just don’t want to leave feedback, even if it means only clicking a button. But if they hate it, you’d better believe they’re going to say something. And that’s the power of the negative. I guess this is why we hold to the adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Even if this is a myth, it appears to have a little truth to it. Well, I’d give that at least 3 stars.

 

To Serve Man

A day before my 25th birthday, having been accepted to graduate school, my new bride and I packed up all our belongings into a smallish U-Haul trailer and left town. We had spent all our cash on securing an apartment, and we had no wiggle room for the unexpected, which was bound to happen. With no credit cards and an empty bank account, we took a leap of faith, being assured that some grant money was coming in and we had at least a place to land once we got there.

We arrived later that afternoon and checked in with the apartment manager. She confirmed that our rent was paid up for the duration of our lease – six months. Relieved, we asked for the keys. The manager informed us that we couldn’t move in yet because the apartment was not ready. It seems the carpet needed to be cleaned or something. After a longer-than-was-comfortable episode of pleading she pointed us to a few hotels in the area. We explained that we (unwisely) arrived with no money. Our best bet was the local homeless shelter, a ministry run by a local church group. Reluctantly, we made our way to the inn, as it were, for, at the very least, some sleep.

Years later I would repeat this story with the message that everyone should deign to have that experience, letting go of pride and humbling oneself. Yes, it was only for one night, but my student ID photo the following morning would capture the gravity of the situation. There we were, newlyweds, separated by floors – women on the second floor and men on the third. The accommodations were meager, as you might expect. It was a cold night, and sleeping in the car was out of the question. We were grateful, and a little terrified. The whole shelter was entirely chaotic; people were shouting and having conniptions. I was constantly worried for my wife – that concept had still not sunk in. Was she okay? Was she scared? Then came the delousing.

Many years later (actually, I think it was only 6 or 7) we attended a church in an upper-middle class area. The gentry that made up the congregation formed a shelter ministry group. Those familiar with church-going folk of this mostly white, suburban, middle class ilk will be familiar with the over-achieving endeavors to reach out to the community, or even beyond it, in keeping with several places in the Bible where Jesus tells the people that they should heal the sick and feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so on. Basically, things people in their 20’s don’t think about, outside of hearing sermons and seeing ads for charities bringing some relief to famine-struck areas in the world. Our particular church’s mission was, in teaming up with other churches in the city, providing a hot meal on Sundays, and making sandwiches that would last until the next weekend. It was unclear just how far those sandwiches went, but the hot meal we ported down there was fully consumed by the men, women, and sometimes homeless children in the shelter by the end of the night.

My wife and I signed up, being the social realists that we are, hoping we were doing enough, inasmuch as we would be returning to our comfortable, if modest, suburban home later that night. As much as I knew it was a good thing, I often would dread it. How much I would rather have been enjoying a Sunday evening, watching TV or some equally banal activity. This was before the web was prevalent, and much before social media and streaming video arrived on the scene, if you can imagine it. Late in the year, it was already dark when we would set out, so it was kind of a drag. But the experience was so fulfilling. I think about how it must sound: schlepping hot food in minivans to an unwholesome district across town to assuage our need to be redeemed. I don’t know why most others did it. But to this day I think I made a difference. The shelter had a couple hundred “beds”, but on cold nights there were close to 300 people. One by one they came through, extremely grateful as they received some hot food and a sandwich. Some of them looked like they could be anyone. And a lot of people in the ‘burbs are one crisis away from such a fate, which is pretty damned scary.

Like I said, I used to tell people they ought to spend a night in a shelter, if only once in their lives, to understand how fortunate we are. But I’ve changed my message over the years. Those bedrolls, cots, and mats are at a premium. Taking a spot from someone who really needs it isn’t proper. If you have a place to stay, go there. I still think we could learn a lot by walking in another’s shoes, but shelters need the space. So, give money. Serve a meal. Donate time and talent. Raise awareness. There is always going to be great need among us.

While You Were Sleepwalking

As I was driving through the parking lot at a local shopping center recently, I was stopped by some pedestrians leaving a shop. Courteous and watchful motorists should be on the lookout for people on foot always. This is especially true in crowded commercial districts that allow a mix of vehicular and foot traffic. What’s more, seasoned city dwellers will tell you that, essentially, pedestrians and cyclists alike are invisible to the average driver, and it is known among the non-motorists that extra vigilance is in order. On behalf of the casual urban ambler, it is the duty of every driver to be extra watchful, because for the occasional walker, we are their eyes and ears.

Back to my recent encounter. Various shoppers were crossing traffic to get to their cars, where, it is hoped, they would assume a commensurate position of vigilance while behind the wheel. A mother and her daughter were walking across my path, both captivated by tiny screens. I expected the pre-teen holding her mobile device would not be paying attention to the world around her. People born in the 21st century are not afforded any skills beyond those required for them to interact with the virtual world through technology. Human interaction is as foreign a concept to them as using technology would have been to my grandparents. This is not a judgement but an observation. A sobering, devastating observation.

The youth, engrossed by her smartphone, walking into the path of moving cars would be disturbing enough without the image of her mother, 4 meters ahead of the girl totally engaged with her own tablet and oblivious to me, also not looking up to make visual contact with, well, anything in her immediate vicinity, apart from the small screen, and especially not paying attention to her child. Now, the fact that this scene alarms me is testament to the rarity of such extent, and most parents probably do watch their children with eyes in the backs of their heads, like mine apparently had. So it is a bit of a relief that it is uncommon to witness such neglect, but imagine how much goes on without anyone watching.

Ever since the Palm Pilot came onto the scene, followed by the Blackberry, humans have been bowing their heads in adoration of the silicon god, the mobile device that connects us not to the person seated across from us, but to the technophile at the other end. Worse things can happen than simply missing out on human contact, I suppose, but we may be approaching the apogee of stupidity while glued to our screens. Meanwhile, the President of the United States seems to be leading that charge.

I believe the blind leading the blind will never really understand the peril they are putting themselves – and their children – in by blundering through life playing Pokemon. I don’t mean to say I disapprove of video games. I enjoy a few on my phone. But sometimes it’s good for us – maybe necessary – to put it away, if only until we make it across the street. I’ll just continue to be their eyes and ears. Oh, and next time, I’ll drive through a nearby puddle just to make it interesting.