I was 24 years old when I met my father after an absence of nearly twenty years. Like many fatherless kids, I had no idea what I’d missed by his absence, although alexithymia – no words for emotion – seems to be one thing I gained. We spent a number of days together trying to get to know one another over the next year, but I had no idea how to respond or really be in relationship to him. One thought that frequently arose after a day spent together was: “I’m sure glad I missed twenty years of this.”
“This” was apparently in part, the result of his role in the Merchant Marines during WW II – a form of PTSD that made him talk incessantly. That was struggle enough for me to endure, but the harder part was his frequent need to point out to me all that I was doing wrong and could be doing better. At the time, I was co-founder of a very successful manufacturing business and attending UCLA as an undergrad – all without any encouragement or support from him, thank you. For some reason, I was frequently physically sick during and after his visits – sore throats, stomach aches, headaches …
Making Wrong Right
I characterize my father as a Make-Wrong Person and not surprisingly I occasionally meet up with people who remind me of him in my current life. When I do spend time with such people, I pay close attention to how they affect my mind and body. First of all, I notice my breathing often gets very shallow, next my stomach tightens and I get very still. A kind of hypervigilance takes hold. It’s like I’m steeling myself for the next “assault.” This kind of automatic reaction it turns out, is all part of a Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenaline (HPA) axis stress response. My father’s way of interacting with me – unwittingly, of course – effortlessly managed to turn protective allostasis into damaging allostatic load.
Seattle of Hospice director, Rodney Smith, writing in one of my favorite books, Lessons From the Dying, speaks to the power of speech to affect neurophysiology. He suggests using the things we say to others as the object of contemplative practice, and offers up Socrates’ Triple Filter for “right speaking” as a useful guide. Socrates suggested that before we go about correcting people, or gossiping about them, or making them wrong, we consider the following: Is what we’re about to say … good? This is not some kind of pollyanna-ish directive to simply always accentuate the positive, particularly when applied in conjunction with the second filter: Is what we’re about to say … true? Finally, and this is one of my own particular challenges: is what we’re about to say … useful? If what we’re about to say is not good, true or useful, perhaps we might want to explore what our motivation is for saying it.
One of the things I would add to Rodney’s and Socrates’ guidance is a fourth consideration: does what we’re about to say have Prosodic Elegance? Prosody has to do with how the rhythm, tone and syllable stress of language convey feelings. Gregory Bateson identified it as part of the deep structure of language and it’s what our right brain responds to in communications more than the words themselves. Prosody has also been shown to powerfully affect neurophysiology, especially in young children. UCLA developmental psychiatrist, Allan Schore has written extensively on the role of prosody in brain development. Unknown to most of us, we emerge from the womb finely attuned to prosodic elements or our mother’s speech, which has played a significant role in our early neural development (it’s not an accident that hearing is the first sense to develop, and the last to go). Prosodic Elegance then, is the conscious ability to use our voice and speech to achieve the outcomes we most desire. In martial arts, the voice is often used loudly and forcefully to thwart an attack. In plays and poetry readings, the voice is used to move the listener emotionally.
Considering this evidence, were my father alive today, I would hope to have the awareness and ability to take him aside and in the most gentle voice I could manage, simply tell him that I understand he did the best he could given what life delivered to him. And that I love him, and I forgive him. But if he wants to spend time with me, he’ll have to curb his advice-giving, chatterboxing and criticism. That’s my bottom-line Triple Truth.