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Am I My Sister’s Keeper?

Jenny from Kansas City, Missouri, writes:

Why is it that people who are normally articulate and outspoken find themselves, in some situations, biting their tongues instead of saying what is truly on their mind? It’s not hostile or mean to speak directly if it is said kindly, is it? Is it worse to be direct and forthright and honest or to stew about it behind their backs? Why do we sometimes choose to ignore an issue rather than to respond truthfully?

How many people (just to give an example) hear Sister X talk about loving drugs or drinking coffee or whatever and just kind of inwardly roll their eyes and go on and do their best to avoid her in the halls? I am ashamed to say that I have done so more times than I can count. If I truly love her, wouldn’t it be better to say something, kindly, than to ignore it? When she makes these comments, isn’t she begging for feedback? I don’t mean that as a kind of “she’s asking for it” but as a “that seems to be what she wants validation for her bizarre views or real reasons why she should change.”

Kathy says:

Hi Jen. Sounds like you might be thinking of a specific incident. But the principle also merits exploration. Did you read And Ladies of the Club, by Helen Hooven Santmyer, by any chance? The ladies need to offer some specific help to a pal in their small town who has lost her income. They plan this “intervention” carefully and structure a social visit according to the conventions of the day, including the required calling card, a formality they are careful to follow even if there might not be a servant, this time, to take the card into the hostess to find out if it is convenient for her to receive “callers.” It reminded me so much of a visiting teaching visit!

The reason I thought of it, though, when I read your note, is that I think women try to be really careful of each other’s feelings, in most cultures. We are normally considered the experts, between the two genders, in building and preserving relationships.

In the Santmyer story, the ladies agonize over this “social call” for a long time before they open their mouths. They have a viable, completely positive and non-judgmental suggestion (game plan) that is sustainable. They go to considerable lengths to make sure it is offered gently, carefully and clearly, in a respectful manner that honors the recipient’s dignity, permits her to receive the “advice” on her home turf where she will feel the most powerful, and excuses her to think about it at her leisure. It’s not just a hit and run opinion about her behavior. Maybe one of the reasons this book is so intriguing is the fact that it is so anachronistic.

Who has time to manage communications in that fashion now? Even sensitive ones?

Let’s switch to another idea, for a second. The real term for a “Freudian Slip” is a parapraxis. Freud said these are always the most significant part of the conversation, because they just kind of blurt their way into the open, and the speaker blows her cover by recognizing immediately that she has come closer to the real unconscious issue than she intended. Freud says to listen to whatever the patient says next, to cover up the blunder. Roslynd Reed Munson, an LDS family and marriage therapist who has practiced for over 25 years calls these marginal comments, which speak volumes, “throw-aways.” She says her training has taught her to listen intently for these side bars, usually spoken barely audibly and aside from the main dialog–just kind of tossed out there without forethought because they contain the real meat of the session.

If someone I didn’t know very well were to “throw in” a comment about substance abuse or introduce a topic involving self-destructive or dangerous behavior, I think I would consider that a very deliberate, if possibly unconscious, challenge. Is this person baiting me? Hitting me up for a couple of bucks for a fix? Feeling me out to see if I am approachable as a sounding board (or, more likely, a casual enabler or smiler and nodder who will take his or her side and make them feel better)? Or is this a cry for guidance that I would be completely accountable for if I were to ignore it? First, is it within my stewardship? If it were just coffee, I don’t think I would fee like I needed to spell anything out. Some bishops will grant temple recommends to coffee drinkers if it is decaf. I would never feel at liberty to jump into that topic unless I were the bishop.

I am probably not a terrific example of the sort of thing you are asking. No, I would normally not consider it a matter of courage and integrity to tell a person on a public bus or in a public meeting place, such as the ward, that I don’t support recreational drug abuse and don’t condone this behavior in others. If a church member were to engage me in an inappropriate conversation, (regarding a behavior that needs to be discussed in private with the bishop) I don’t think I would participate beyond mentioning that the bishop needs to hear the details but it’s best if the members don’t get too involved except as friends.

My standard response to weird phone callers, for example, is to encourage them to look in the yellow pages under “Mental Health” and find a free counselor. Than I hang up quickly, with my apologies for being short. I’m not qualified to counsel. I don’t think I can do any good, and I think I might do some harm.

If the person is an intimate friend, it’s a completely different matter. But it has to be a very close, trusted friend. I am just a superficial person who likes to follow the social format with very few exceptions. I don’t think “corrective feedback” is at all useful unless I am in a heart to heart exchange with somebody whom I know will understand far more than I can say with words, and knows, from years of intimacy, that they can trust me and that they have a pretty good idea of who I am and “where I am coming from.” I think I’d give the other sister the same options.

Tracy says:

Lots of good questions! This is something that I’m sure everyone can relate to.

I think I’ll try to answer some questions directly, then address the broader issue.

  1. Why do we bite our tongues instead of saying what’s on our mind?Self preservation, sister!!!!! I think what Kathy said is true, we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or offend them. But think for a moment there are people to whom we do tell our truest feelings. My husband has heard the truth (as I see it which, of course, really is the truth!) more times than he’d probably like. If I’m upset with him, and need to talk, he knows it and he knows why. If he doesn’t know why, he will, because I’ll spell it out for him, letter by letter, and over and over until he gets it!! (Now let’s all join together in a verse of Love at Home.)

    The truth is, I feel safe telling him how I really feel. I’m never rude, and I try to say it as sensitively as possible. I always try to say things in a calm, concerned and loving tone, rather than an angry or judgmental one. There have been times when I felt I needed to say something that might hurt his feelings, or that I was sure he’d disagree with. But I know my husband. He might be upset with me, he might totally disagree, but we’ll work it out, and he’ll still be there in the morning. And the same is true when the situation is vice versa. So we feel safe in telling each other the truth.

    But when it comes to other people, I don’t always say what I really feel. I sort of “tip-toe” my way around. Why? Is it really because I don’t want to hurt their feelings? From the hip, I think this is what most of us would say. And on the surface, it is true. But think about it if you knew for sure, and could be guaranteed that even if the person’s feelings were hurt, they wouldn’t be upset with you, they wouldn’t hold it against you, there would be nothing for you to lose and everything would continue on it’s merry way as if you’d never said it, (and maybe they’d even eventually agree with you) you’d probably go ahead and say whatever it is, right? In honesty, I think the real reason we don’t say things that we really want to say, is to protect ourselves, not them. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, because we don’t want them to be upset with us. So what are we really protecting, worrying about, and “looking out for”? Their feelings, or ours?

  2. Is it worse to be direct and forthright and honest or to stew about it behind their backs?I don’t think stewing ever does anyone any good. It doesn’t do anything productive for the “stewer,” and certainly doesn’t do anything to change the “stewee.” (Bet you can’t find that word in a Merriam-Webster!) But I also think that directness is called for sometimes. The trick is knowing when that is. Obviously, if it’s something dangerous or illegal we should speak up. It’s the other things that are harder to voice our thoughts about. Moral issues, personal ethics and decisions, etc.

    I was at a Christmas party one year with a bunch of my husband’s family and family friends. I didn’t know them very well and some of them I was meeting for the very first time. The subject of daycare came up and I immediately started panicking at the thought of my opinion being sought. I happen to have worked in daycare, and am firmly against it.

    And there I was, surrounded by moms who worked outside of the home (all of them married to men with very well paying jobs) and who had their kids in daycare. One part of me was saying to keep my big mouth shut, but the passionate stay-at-home mom in me wanted to tell them how I really felt. So I sort of did both. I very briefly mentioned that I stay at home and feel very strongly about it, but that I’d worked in all types of daycares, the large-chain type, the privately owned, church-affiliated (not LDS), and that I’d been a nanny providing in-home care. I gave them all the pros and cons of each type of childcare and expressed my love for staying home.

    Thankfully, they all seemed to appreciate what I had to say. I think that since I’d actually worked in the field, my thoughts held more “merit” to them, than they would have otherwise.

    I think when people bring up controversial topics in a forum where they know they will be in the minority, that they’re either just trying to get attention or they truly think that they’re opinion is correct. And the latter isn’t necessarily wrong. If I were at a PTA meeting where the discussion surrounded the possibility of students getting contraceptives from the school nurse or getting paid for school attendance I’d be on my moral “high horse” in a flash. People in Singapore would wake from their sleep wondering who in the world (literally) was screaming so loudly.

    On the other hand, a long-time active member of the church, who, in the middle of Relief Society lessons repeatedly advocates doing something specifically against official church doctrine (despite the frequent requests of her leaders and Bishop to stop doing so) with several newly baptized sisters with budding testimonies present, is simply doing so for the attention she gets and is hoping that after mentioning it often enough, that she’ll sway someone over to her “team.” I think in such a case, where it’s in a church meeting, and we need to be sure that Truth is being taught, but where we don’t want to embarrass or humiliate anyone, the only thing one could do is to simply say (as was said by a certain, very wise Relief Society President), “We all are free to choose for ourselves, but we would be wise to choose to follow the counsel of the prophet.”

    As far as expressing “opposing” views and thoughts that disagree with someone who is close to us, believe it or not, I’ve actually taken the advice of a radio-talk show host on this one, and so far, it has worked amazingly well. She basically says that when you’re dealing with a good friend or family member, someone you are very close to, those are the people with whom we should be able to calmly, tenderly, and lovingly express our feelings of concern or disagreement.(And we’re talking about important issues not “I don’t like your haircut” kind of stuff.) Unless we already know the person to be unreasonable and incredibly oversensitive, we need to give that person the benefit of the doubt and trust that they will take things in the manner in which we mean them, and possibly even see the issue from our point of view.

The third installment of the Tracy Runs Her Mouth series is due out next month.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • innovative momma July 1, 2007, 12:59 pm

    Jenny, your observations are astute and your questions are intriguing. I appreciate the opportunity to first apply them to my own life, and then try to respond with something of value.

    It seems to me that one of the reasons I don’t speak up on some occasions stems from my concerns about inappropriate judgment on my part. If I were in that person’s shoes, would I be doing the same things? Are there ways in which I have done similar things (in principle, in concept)? How would I have responded had someone taken it upon themselves to correct me? What would be the best way to approach this situation?

    I can’t count the number of times I have heard my colleagues (both students and licensed, seasoned professionals) judge someone’s behavior as inappropriate/wrong/selfish/etc., and not admitted to them that there have been times in my life when I chose the same behaviors, or had the same shortcomings, as the person talked about. Sometimes it just doesn’t do any good to try to enlighten, teach, inform, straighten out, whatever you want to call it. People’s personal biases often keep them from seeing another view, or understanding the motivations of others.

    When I was younger, my name and “tact” never went in the same sentence. I blurted out what I thought was “truth,” and I always felt that “standing for truth and righteousness” meant boldness. Well, it does, but it also means keeping the Plan of Salvation in mind. So now, hopefully, “tact” and I are at least sometimes close associates. I try to think, “to what message would this person be most receptive at this point in their eternal growth? Would the full weight of truth here bring so much inner guilt that s/he would shut down and not be receptive to anything s/he needs to hear? Is there an angle on this that I can use to get the message regarding the misbehavior across without an accompanying negative-judgment-of-person kind of message?” And on the other hand, sometimes I realize that the time has come, in an ongoing situation, to be blunt, bold and courageous, and I am. One needs to walk closely with the Spirit at these times. I’m working on perfecting my ability to do so in these situations.

    The person who is brashly talking about their WoW problems, or other misbehaviors, IS calling out for help, but is not always ready to receive it. The attention-getting angle holds true here, but there’s more to it than that. One can characterize ALL misbehavior as the outward evidence of poor self-image and self-esteem. This holds true even for those who are so crude, crass, and evil that they seem to have no social conscience. Working on building self-image and self-esteem (which is the work of the Gospel, I believe) is often the better approach. “I am concerned about your choices here, because it seems to me that under it all you must not feel very good about yourself. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be harming or risking yourself in that way. Can I help?” gives the message that you hate the sin, but love the sinner. “Woman, where are thine accusers?” rings in my head.

    I think it behooves us all to consider the eternal ramifications of our comments before we speak them. Of course, if we all considered all comments at length, it would be far easier to maintain reverence in the chapel, during classes, etc., because we’d all be rather afraid to speak! So I don’t advocate the extreme here, but I do hope that I choose my words more carefully these days, and consider the “best good” that can come of a situation.

    I also bristle at the “my sister’s keeper” concept. I have found it a widespread problem in the church (and I’ve been guilty of it myself at times) that we consider “sister’s [brother's] keeper” as a justification to get inappropriately involved in other people’s lives (beginning with gossip and moving on to usurp authority, stewardship, and agency). I even had the hymn with this phrase in it (“Lord, I Would Follow Thee”) used by an extended family-in-law member to justify outrageous, invasive, and manipulative behavior against us. To be my “sister’s keeper” is to be the loving guide, the one who notices and cares about the ones who are slipping through the cracks (or the ones who are active but who have an area of their lives in which they are struggling), and who applies the loving balm of the Savior, His healing power, and His words to help them make better choices. In the hymn, the phrase is followed by “I would learn the healer’s art; to the wounded and the weary I would show a gentle heart.” I still have problems singing that phrase, and often just won’t, because I know it is one that is so misunderstood in the church.

    One final thought: when it comes to judging others, it helps me to think of life as a large pool of choices. My eternal brothers and sisters and I have not invented any new choices; we’re all wading through the same pool. However, certain beliefs about self, others, and the world will channel us into areas of that pool that have poorer choices in them. The opposite is true: the more you know and live the gospel, the more you are channelled into the better-and-best-choices pools. When we focus on improving the self-image and self-esteem of our brothers and sisters (and of ourselves), the more successful we are at guiding them (and ourselves) into the right channels.

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