Verbal Land Mines
Snapshot. Scene One. You’re standing behind a police cordon holding people back. Everyone’s yelling, pushing, hitting. That man hurling what looks like a Molotov cocktail at an army truck full of soldiers could be your Uncle Jack. And might that sweet, young girl over there be your cousin Susie, the one trying to push someone else out of her way? Who painted that portrait of hateful disdain around the eyes and mouth of that bully throwing ugly epithets at those not like him? He has your dad’s eyes, doesn’t he?
It’s war – and war is hell.
Scene Two. Consider the family dynamic. Wow – another kind of war, but war, just the same. Just spend a holiday (even just a weekend) with your family – all of them at once – and you’ll be tip-toeing through a debris-field of unspoken accusations, slights, and perceived injuries you thought were dead and buried long ago. Guilt trips of all kinds.
And when the fighting stops?
Scene Three. Both fields, the battlefield as well as the home field, are littered with land mines, hand grenades, unexploded bombs and missiles. Shrapnel. Pits and craters in the earth, buildings hollowed out, burned. Walls knocked down. Streets littered with battle’s debris. Damage caused by the words we have used – words breeding resentments that linger, words harboring unresolved issues that fester making ripe fodder for the next go-round.
And of course, there are those words we fail to say.
The wrong step – or the wrong word – and everything blows up in your face. Bodies litter the ground – your ten-year-old self, the twenty-year-old you became. Your sister as she looked when she was twelve. Your wife at thirty-three. Your brother, father, mother, grandparents.
It’s easier to hone in on the big blunders that undermine the familial tree. Like ignoring your spouse at a dinner party in favor of that “handsome/pretty young thing,” (or having a fling with that “handsome/pretty young thing”), forgetting Mom on Mother’s Day or giving her a gift card to a restaurant instead of taking her there yourself, or letting the fact that you have siblings somehow slip your mind. Obviously, these aren’t things one can fail to recognize as problematic.
But the little things we don’t perceive as significant are easier to kick under the rug, easier to be missed: yes, your butt does look big in that. What? I’m sorry. Did you say something? What I have to say is important, and your words, not so much so, which is why I wasn’t really listening to what you were saying. Your words fell through the cracks, fell down the well.
No, these things will not endear people to you, not even your relatives. Especially your relatives, who are less likely to gloss over your self-centered behavior. Your rudeness.
Scene Four. The family gathering replete with hurt feelings, perceived inadequacies, and hurtful comments that, inadvertently or purposefully, undermine their object’s self-esteem, or render them unworthy. Talk about verbal land mines!
Is meaningful communication even possible any longer, or are too many of us engaging in quasi-conversation that floats on the surface of things? It’s easier that way sometimes. Meaningful discussion requires thoughtful consideration and responses. More work. It requires taking turns which no one seems to want to do. Heaven forbid, you should have to wait to talk instead of trying to drown others’ words out by tramping over them with your own. Must we always be the ones at center stage?
Unlike the horrific reality of war fought with guns and missles, this one doesn’t have to end with the bloodied remnants of who we thought we were lying in bits and pieces on the battlefield. It doesn’t have to result in our friends and relatives bloodied and broken in the muddy trench at our feet.
We can photo-shop the photographer’s snapshot by curbing our nasty tongues and our impulse to attack or to blindly defend.
Let’s begin. What will we crop first?