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Finding The Who and Banishing the What in Life

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

The world can be a stressful place to live. News often causes stress and uncertainty. Lately, I muddle through social media and news, wondering if people have lost the ability to engage thoughtfully and empathetically. When I write a story, I seek to take a journey. Immersing myself in a stranger’s experience and emotions, while drawing upon my own, helps me to gain a better understanding of the world around me. And hopefully, along the way, I learn more about myself. Writers put words to paper, backspace, and delete, rewrite, and struggle to find the best words to convey emotion. The exercise has led me to examine how I speak about people and myself. How often have I looked in the mirror and asked what I see? How many times did I ask my son what he wanted from life? What he wanted to be when he grew up? What is an objective term. It denotes a thing, something we can possess rather than someone we can become.

What would happen to our conversations and our views of ourselves and each other if we changed how we talk about people? Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Who do I want to see looking back at me?” It will change your response. What do I see? That question leads to answers that are objective: the color of your eyes, your hair, the wrinkles at the corners of your eyes, a blemish, or the evidence of a few extra pounds. Who do I see? The answers differ. Do you see someone who is sad, happy, hopeful, in love, excited, compassionate, angry, afraid? The same applies to all our dialogue.

What happens when you change the way you ask a question—the way you speak and think about yourself and others? It’s an exercise I struggle to master. I need to unlearn a lifetime of programming. When someone asks me what do I believe about any issue, I realize I need to reframe the question. Why do I hold the beliefs I have? How did I arrive at my opinions? I can give a laundry list of defenses to my beliefs. It holds less meaning than examining why and how I reached that conclusion. And when I reframe that question, it also changes how I communicate my beliefs to others. What occurs when I ask someone, “Why do you feel this way?”

I would never suggest that these questions ensure consensus. They do not. Changing the way we speak about ourselves and others opens up a deeper type of communication. Not everyone will choose to immerse themselves in self-examination. But speaking of who, rather than what, lends humanity to a question. It recognizes the inherent humanity in someone—in yourself, rather than objectifying a person. How would you change the world? Who would you like people to see when they look at you? Why does that matter? What is a thing. How would the world change if we asked our children who they want to become rather than what they want to be? I think we would experience a transformation.

Words matter. How we speak about people matters. How we frame our opinions and our stories matters. Life isn’t an easy journey. It’s a great deal like hiking in the mountains. No matter how high you climb, you will always confront another valley. There are few plateaus in life. Those are places for reflection. The ups and downs we inevitably face provide the experiences that inform who we become, and the reason we view the world in our unique way. (I had to stop writing this paragraph. My inclination was to type the words, “the experiences that inform who we become, and what we believe). It may sound to many people like a silly exercise. It isn’t.

I have friends who believe in positive affirmation. I believe in that, too. But looking in the mirror and telling myself what I like about myself hasn’t helped me. What? Do I like my eyes? My hair? My mouth? Taking a breath and asking, who have I been? Who am I right now? Why do I want to be the person I am? Or how would I like to change? Those are truly empowering questions that require me to look inside myself.

If I could wave a magic wand and create the world into a gentler place where people wanted to listen as much as they speak, I would. Even Harry Potter couldn’t banish pain from the world. All the power on earth didn’t make Voldemort whole. One ring to rule them all didn’t create peace. No religion has paved our way as humans to a peaceful and prosperous existence. The longer I live, the more people I love, and the more losses I experience, I find my approach to life changes. There is too much importance placed on what in our world, and not enough on who, how, and why. Food for thought.

If you feel inclined, try the exercise for a week. You’ll be amazed at how many times you stop and change your thought or your words. At the end of the week, see if it changes anything within you and how you speak to and about others. It might surprise you what you learn.

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