Last night, a friend sent me a text message.
We’ve known each other for about a decade. It’s someone I admire as a creative role model. Because we met in the theatre, we might think we know each other more than we really do. (When you meet someone in theatre rehearsals, it’s like Love At Summer Camp: fast, true, and somewhat too fast to be true without further marination.)
Anyway, the text message started with a cheerful greeting and said there was a reason to talk: I had been maligned in a public space. “It’s not what I consider gossip, but rather, more substantial.”
I called immediately.
I said, “Thanks for this call, thanks very truly. I am very grateful that you contacted me. But I need to start by asking you not to tell me who said it and what was said.”
My friend listened.
I added, “I believe that what other people say about me behind my back is none of my business.”
“What other people think about me isn’t any of my business.” This isn’t an original thought; it is attributed to many wise people.
I learned it when I was researching my first public speaking on the ethics of speech. (I spoke on ethics to about 100 groups as I learned about public speaking and about the topic.)
What Were The Bad Words About Me?
I don’t know. And I did wonder, as we were on the phone:
- I wondered who said it.
- I wondered what is the accusation.
- I wondered if the accusation is true.
- I wondered if I owe someone an apology or restitution.
- I wondered if my friend believes what he heard.
- I wondered if I should ask to hear the words.
- I wondered what it would feel like to finish this call and not hear the words or know who said it.
I did not wonder about my friend’s motivation in calling me. I believe the call to me was an act of love. He disliked hearing my reputation challenged and felt it was my right to know. (It’s not easy to bear a bad tale to the subject of the tale.)
Now what do we do on the phone? My friend and I felt an awkward tension. He had offered to tell me something. I had said, “Don’t.” I held him off.
So I asked him, “Let us suspend our conversation for a moment, so we can process what is happening here.”
I wanted to understand reality before diving into it. You can do this with friends. You can do this in high functioning peer groups. You can certainly do it with anyone with whom you have done something frightening, like acting on stage together. (Oh, what an easy life I have had. When I think of being frightened, it is in a play, in “play.” May the hearts of those who have faced true fright be restored.)
What Was Happening?
We discussed some aspects of our suspended conversation:
- Once I hear it, I cannot un-hear it. So, please, friend, don’t yet say it.
- If I have been falsely accused, I would have to defend myself against a false negative. This takes a lot of energy and isn’t fully possible.
- Those who heard the words might consider the source. After all, who maligns others?
- I have been maligned before. And when I had heard the details, I was:
- sad — because it hurts to be spoken of unkindly
- mad — at the other (because it wasn’t accurate) or at myself (because it was)
- afraid — for my reputation
We discussed it further. We discussed the well-being of the maligner (without my knowing who it was). I was curious: was the source regarded as reliable?
Did I Ever Hear The Words?
No. In the end, I maintained the idea, “What others think of me — or say behind my back — is none of my business.”
How Do I Feel About It?
I feel glad. Immediately after ending our call — and still now, hours later, I feel calm and glad to have not heard the report!
In this case, ignorance is bliss. Or, even better: equanimity.
I know in my bones that, if I had opened my ears to the report, I might now:
- Be angry about the maligning.
- Be suspicious about the maligner’s intentions.
- Be plotting self-defense in the court of public opinion.
Here is what I don’t want to spend time and energy being: angry, suspicious, plotting.
Sometimes — this time — I prefer ignorance.
The Rest Of The Phone Call
We chatted about our families and our lives. It was fulfilling. This friend and I don’t speak often. Our love was built in the vulnerability of theatre, rather than on many years of continuous experience. We know we love each other. That is enough.
What had started as a maligning, led to an uncomfortable need to call me, which led to — this is the rich part — a lovely re-connection of friends. The conversation was positive and true. How nice.
Whatever the maligner’s intention, the result was the re-connection of friends.
And the call ended without my hearing the words.
I am left wondering if I owe someone an apology or restitution. (If I owe you and apology or restitution, please tell me.)
The culmination of my speaking on the ethics of speech was a presentation at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, December 2, 2009 — attended by my mother, and televised and archived here: tinyurl.com/ArtieCMC1.
Coincidentally, the final comments in Q&A offer a different strategy to this same situation!