The One Thing I Do Best Is Choosing the Words That Couldn’t Be Worse

Woman Placing Her Finger Between Her Lips
A strategy that might just save your life.

April 19, 2020

A little over a year ago, after insidious deterioration throughout a lengthy hospital stay, my best friend’s mother passed away.

It’s one of life’s most brutal inevitabilities, and most inevitabilities are, by nature, utterly and irrevocably devastating. We may veer through life ignoring and denying their impending arrival, changing the channel on those indignant two-faced insurance ads lamenting that “…the average funeral now costs triple the tuition for an undergraduate degree at the undersea University of Atlantis plus a buffet of roughly 8,000 freshly harvested human organs– that is, if you’re hoping for a casket.” But to bloody hell* with those greedy pigs– this isn’t about them, or money, or flunking dropping out of school.

Remember that wise old proverb that went something like, “Better to keep your face-hole shut and have people think you’re a blithering twit than to open it up and prove them right?”

HEAVENS TO BETSY* I wish my family would adopt that strategy as much, if not as selectively, as I do. We each have our own signature communication deficiencies. My father will repeat a story or a statement over and over in single sitting until the words become gibberish in a blender; my mother’s interruptions strike like one suckerpunch after another; my aunts’ gossip and gossip, so much so that I’m almost convinced it’s nothing but elaborate horse-puckey* and none of these people are real.

I can be a complicated communicator.” —Liz Phair

(*I’m trying to tame my vulgarianism.)

Sorry. Clearly something hacked into my thought cave and set that song on repeat. Still, it’s the truth. And although sometimes I can be sharp, I can weave a story with the eloquent instinct of a spider weaving its web, for the most part my speaking skills are about as brilliant as my web-weaving skills. How can I forget the day I ran into one of my old high school friends, a tomboy-ish type with whom I’d always been completely at ease. And now she stood before me, pale-faced and pregnant. And something about ten or twelve more at home– I don’t know, I was dumbfounded, as speechless as a rock, and my frustration cranked the awkwardness meter to eleven. We were both so different now. My laidback girl-buddy was giving me a nervous breakdown.

I can chart my entire social history on my verbal blunders and dialogue disasters, and most nights I lie awake reliving them in utter mortification.

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I’m crazy-fascinated by the phenomenon of speech. The social physics of communication have always either excited me, for example at parties where I’d seek out a target to flirt with, or terrified me, for example all the times when I wasn’t flirting at a party.

Despite my own string of personal disasters, I make for a terrible grief counselor. I’m not the guy you want manning any kind of crisis hotline. And it’s not an issue of being unable to empathize. It’s that when someone’s in trouble, when someone confides in me, I immediately rampage my brain in search of the magic words that will click with this person like a key to a lock.

Of course, I can never find those words. I still haven’t learned that they don’t exist. But I’ve got to come up with something, so again I duck inside my head, overturning tables, tearing through cupboards and sofa cushions, even ripping entire books out of their spines, batting away the winged clichés that suddenly attack from all sides, all in search of the perfect thing to say.

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I was first alerted to my jerkdom as far back as the second semester of my freshman year of college. Justine, a small but headstrong red-head and one of the first friends I made that year had the honor and privilege of calling my ass out. I had gotten sick that year and spent a few weeks back at home/ the hospital, and Justine sent me a fantastic card that honestly lifted my spirits but: being a jerk, I didn’t write back.

“You never even thanked me,” she said. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to finish that card?” And a phantom pain expanded through my chest, clogging my throat. Inside that card was a massive spiral of words. Beginning in the center, she’d written outward in circles, one flawless ring over another. I couldn’t imagine how long she’d worked on that spiral, and I couldn’t believe what a colossal cesspool of inconsideration I’d been, how all that time my silence, not my words, was hurting someone I truly cared about.

I think that much wiser advice, at least for starters, is that knowing what not to say is a hundred times as crucial as finding the right words. For example, your heart may be in the right place when you say:

  • “Hey, look, I know what you’re going through. Oh– my parents send their condolences. Gram-Gram and Pop-Pop too.”
  • “Screw this. Let’s get baked.”
  • “He’s half Doberman, half Chihuahua, and a hundred percent yours! They’re really good about grief sensitivity.”
  • “A couple of years ago I was coming back from yoga in that crappy old Plymouth and right in the middle of Big Yellow Taxi my goddamn tape deck literally spit out the cassette, like, literally, on purpose, just vomited a hundred yards of ribbon all over my console. And then I realized we really don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone. So I know what you’re going through.”
  • “I’ve got some Doritos…?”

I can’t wrap this up with something kumbaya and spiritual fist-bumps. I don’t have the answers, and I’m sure I never will. The older I get the more crazy this goddamn world becomes, and I always thought it was meant to be the other way around. Still, the crazier it becomes, the more empathetic I become. I don’t know anything anymore, except everything these days makes Joni’s lyrics ring more true to me– we don’t know what we’ve got ’till it’s gone.

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