Sunday, October 23, 2011
Worms, Roxanne, worms!
In the classic film remake of Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxanne, Chris gets himself into trouble with his paramour, Roxanne, when he mishears -- and thereby misstates -- the whispers from C.D. who is hiding in the bushes behind him, feeding him his lines. "So why did you say those things," Roxanne asks from her open window above. "Tell her you were afraid," C.D. urges from nearby. "Because I was afraid," Chris projects dutifully. "Of me? Afraid of what?" Roxanne is terribly confused.
"Tell her you were afraid of words," C.D. whisper-yells. "What?" Chris can't believe what he is mishearing. "Words!" "Because I was afraid of worms, Roxanne, worms!"
And with Roxanne disastrously disenchanted, C.D. takes over from below and delivers one of the most wonderful speeches of the film... a speech about the power of words, especially when one is in love. "Be careful," C.D. warns Roxanne, "one hard word from you at that height kills me!" And as he continues, he woos her with his moving, heartfelt words. "I love you. I have breathed you in, and I am suffocating." Finally, she is almost at the point of wanting to let Chris/C.D. into her house... and C.D. clinches it, again, by speaking of words. "There will never be another tonight, Roxanne. Why should we sip from a teacup when we can drink from the river? There's a tiny word. It's not a noun, it's not a verb, it's not an adjective. I, I don't know what it is. But if you said it to me tonight, all this blackness would go away, and you and I would be connected by a tunnel of light." And she says it. And the power of 'yes' is stunning in its simplicity.
Shakespeare was right. Words can be sharper than a dagger, can cut deeper, can do more damage. As Emerson once said, "Words are alive; cut them and they bleed." And throw them and they cut us. Whoever said that actions are stronger than words was not cut by the tongue of a lover.
But even those with whom we are not close can cut us. I remember being at summer camp one year. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. This one particular girl chose me for her bullying prey. I have no idea why. Bullying targets often don't make any sense. Sometimes the bully can just sense the sensitivity of another. She bullied me relentlessly, calling me names, making fun of my clothing and my lunch, mocking me when I misfired the kickball into foul territory. It began to weigh on me and one day I came home crying. My parents, not surprisingly, were quite upset. My father's advice was 'an eye for an eye' sort of counsel. "Start calling her 'the whale,'" he urged me, assuring me that this would end my tortuous days. She was a big girl, too big, and certainly this would have embarrassed her, perhaps stopped her from bothering me. At the very least, she would have been surprised at how I stood up to her attacks.
But I couldn't do it. I wasn't afraid. It just felt so ugly in my stomach. I didn't want to throw back the pain she had caused me in her face. I didn't want to cruelly insult and shame her in front of all the other campers. Because there was some truth in the name, it would have cut deeper... and it would have stuck longer. Probably other kids would have taken up the nickname and continued the teasing I had begun. I just didn't want to use words that way. I think, even at that age, I understood how powerful and painful they can be. So I just quietly took the bullying, day in, day out, until one day it stopped. She must have gotten tired of my lack of a response. And I didn't need to be afraid of worms anymore.
At least for a while. No, probably not such a while. We are hurt by words quite often, too often. It is the first tool that someone turns to when he wants to injure a loved one. Words speak louder than actions when you consider the abuse, the violence, the sting and lasting pain they can inflict.
A loved one and I were struggling with a difficult decision. Though I was undecided, I was clearly leaning one way, he another. My direction was a direction in which he didn't want to be pulled. His direction was one that I was sure would traumatize me terribly, perhaps even kill me. His frustration built and built. Finally, he appeared in my apartment one night at 2am, came in and sat on my bed. He sat silently for a while. Then, he explained his position again and quite adamantly. I sat up, curled my knees close to my chest and tried to close myself off into a little ball of protectiveness. Perhaps I knew inwardly what was coming. I began to cry. Many, not all, but many men hate it when the women they love begin to cry. The extreme display of uncontrollable emotion overwhelms them and their ability to respond. Everything becomes muddled. But I needed to cry. I was hurting from the thought of making one decision and from the difficulty of the other road as well. Everything was going to be hard, but was made harder by the fact that we were not on the same page. "Stop crying," he ordered me. I tried. "I just don't know if I can do that," I told him. It was then he couldn't contain his vexation any longer. "I wish I had never met you!" he yelled and left the room, but not before punching the door angrily.
Don't we all have those moments? The ones we can recall as if they were yesterday when someone cut us with their words.... someone we love or loved. The reason those moments are so persistently present is because words are, in fact, so powerful. That single sentence still aches in my heart when I think of it. What a cutting thing to say to someone you love. It suggests the erasure of all of your moments together, all of the beautiful intimacies, all of the tenderness, all of the love. Didn't that matter to him?
I wonder how many times we can be cut by the same person before we are so wounded we cannot love them anymore. Words are indeed physical. They can create distance. You don't understand me = distance to the person who wants to understand. I wish I never met you = distance to the heart that feels so close to another... distance and a wound. Lies can create distance too. A huge distance. Perhaps an insurmountable one. Of couples where one person has an affair, less than 30% continue on to heal and have an enduring relationship.
Ironically, though, it is perhaps the reverse when we speak of love. In the case of compassion and kindness and love, actions may indeed speak louder than words. We have all had someone say "I love you" perhaps even in an attempt to apologize for past missteps or cuts. But it is never enough. That person must DO something to show that love. Then, we can start believing again. A friend of mine posted a beautiful blog entry written by a woman on her 35th birthday. Rather than have a celebration for herself, she went out and celebrated others. And ultimately, these acts of kindness and generosity made her far happier than any present or party could have.
Words combined with action may be the most powerful of all. Sometimes, with the help of another, if we just say something differently, everything changes.
Words to ourselves may be the most powerful of all. I am not a big fan of self-help gurus. But, for some reason last night, I found myself watching Wayne Dyer on PBS. He was talking about the way that we make our own excuses for things and then come to believe that these excuses are facts unto themselves. If we think with possibility, rather than excuses, he suggested, anything can happen and all doors are open to us. I think I enjoyed his presentation because I have long felt the same way.
"All that we are is the result of what we have thought," Wayne tells us by way of Buddha. We are what we think. Events don't determine our destiny, our reaction to events do. Life is just something that happens to us. The way we take what happens, what we do with it, how we approach it, what we choose to think about it, that determines our lives and our meaning. Dyer spoke of how passion for something is not just a feeling, but a vehicle. If you have passion for a job or a cause, for instance, you are driven by the end result you hope to see. And working from the end backwards is a tremendously effective way to run the course of your life. If you see something in the future as having already occurred, all you have to do now is fill in the blanks. What we tell ourselves about our lives, about what happens to us, about our loved ones, about ourselves IS our reality. Truly, we can all be carried forward by the power of our own words. We can make all kinds of excuses, or we can see life as a gift and move forward in our optimistic luckiness. If we live in gratitude, if we act with grace, if we speak with passion and tenderness, if we believe in what's possible, we have all the power in the world.