Perhaps it was the corrosive nature of the websites I frequented. Maybe it was the inebriated pack of blowhards I hung out with and our constant blasphemous banter. Or maybe it was my wife’s affair that finally sent me over the edge. Whatever the last straw was, there was an omnipresent cloud of negativity slowly but surely poisoning me—and I aimed to flippin’ do something about it.
For the past 25 years, I’ve made my living as a humor columnist, hired to rant wildly about rabid vegans, sell-out politicos, and closeted Christian fundamentalists. Even so, I genuinely tried to be a conscientious, thoughtful, sometimes sardonic but generally pleasant human being. Notwithstanding this upbeat self-perception, the smart-alecky satire was starting to creep into my personal life, as I recently heard the following words come out of my mouth:
“Did you see Tommy last night? Guy was hammered! Though I’d drink heavily if I was married to Sandy, that’s for damn sure. I can’t believe their marriage lasted longer than mine! Did you check her out? She’s lookin’ like a combo of William Shatner and Chaz Bono on steroids.”
As my pal silently picked at his blackened salmon Caesar, losing his appetite for my company, it became clear that an internal intervention was needed. In an effort to reprogram my brain toward a less foul-mouthed future, I decided to take the radical step of removing all trash talk, mudslinging, and taunting tweets from my everyday existence for an entire month.
Week 1: “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”
The concept “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is a helluva lot easier said than done. For one thing, it means you have a lot less to say. My sister called and wanted to know if I’d had any recent interactions with my soon-to-be-ex wife. “No,” I lied, “Vanessa and I are giving each other the space we need right now.” Truth was, we’d had several screaming powwows including a Please Take Me Back session, followed by a My Therapist Says It Must Have Been Over Before the Affair discussion.
Given that my previous efforts at major life changes—losing 20 pounds, quitting weed, laying off the West Wing DVDs—had failed miserably, I knew I’d need an experienced sponsor to keep me on task. So I called on the most dedicated and fierce influence in my life: my yoga teacher, Dawn Jansen.
She arrived at my house with a dozen books intended to impart some structure and words of wisdom. As we reviewed them, the Buddhist concept of “right speech” came into focus. “The first element is abstaining from false speech—basically lies,” Dawn said. I don’t do a whole lot of lying (anymore), so I thought avoiding flat-out fibs shouldn’t be a problem. “The second notion is abstaining from hateful or slanderous speech.” Hmmm. Slander: making false and malicious statements about others. OK—I can stay away from that. “Third element is avoiding harsh words that hurt or offend other people,” she continued.
I must have looked dumbfounded. “It’s not like you can’t say anything negative,” Dawn explained. “There’s room for straight shooting, so long as it’s truthful.” Sounded good to me. “And finally, there’s abstaining from idle chatter.” Idle chatter? But idle chatter’s my specialty! “You just don’t want to get involved in conversations that have no purpose or depth,” she clarified. “So, no bullshitting?” I asked. “Is that necessary?” she replied. So much for small talk . . .
Week 2: Social Media Etiquette
After emailing my wife a lovely poem titled “When Did You Give Up on Us?” I realized that uplifting my communication would also require efforts in the electronic realm. So my tendency to hit the “Like” button on YouTube videos where rednecks shoot themselves in the face or email attachments of Dorothy Hamill to mock a friend’s haircut need to be curbed ASAP.
Facebook and Twitter may be aiding revolutionaries all over the Arab world in their march toward democracy, and that’s great. For the rest of us, social networks are a massive waste of time. That said, I got online this morning and realized that I have seen the Cyber-Bully up close and personal, and he is me. Within 15 minutes of perusing my feeds I’d been an ass to no fewer than four virtual amigos, including sarcastically congratulating my friend on her kid surviving his second year (he did eat a few cigarette butts at one point).
With more opportunities for the anonymous everyman to enter the digital conversation via online news forums, comment sections, and blog posts, there are also more chances to vent pent-up anger. This tweeting, Yelping, Trip-Advising mob has turned into a pack of snarling dogs.
“Right now, our culture really is perpetuating the notion that everyone’s a critic,” notes relationship guru John Gottman. “For some reason we have the idea that anyone who takes notice of what’s right must be an idiot. The skeptical mind, or cynical mind, is approved in our society.”
I wondered if he had any ideas on how we got into this crabby place. “I think we’re running on empty with negativity,” Gottman says. “People aren’t spending time doing activities they like, they’re not working out, not eating right. All these things are crowding out enjoyment, and it’s our own fault. We need to have some self-care to get back on track.”
For the past 25 years, part of my “self-care” plan has been pseudo therapy sessions with my best friend. Three or four times a year we get together with a laundry list of items for discussion and trouble-shoot our lives. Our latest meeting presented a challenge, to say the least.
“I can’t believe I gave that $#@! woman my dead grandmother’s wedding ring from 1919!” I screamed, as Doug loaded his backpack into my car. “What happened to the whole positive speech deal you’ve been babbling about?” he replied. “Oh, right. That!”
Yoga has “four gates of speech”: Ask if something is true, if it’s kind, if it’s necessary, and if it’s the right moment to say it. Using this barometer, I should usually keep my mouth shut about my ex-wife. It’s not necessary to speak just for the sake of being “right,” or to make myself look better. If I want to be emotionally honest, I’ll have to examine my own piece of how things fell apart. The truth, it seems, isn’t just factual, but can reveal a far deeper state in the heart. I can tell you this: My truth hurts.
Week 3: Silence Is Power
Cohosting a friend’s morning podcast, I fell off the salubrious yakkin’ wagon. Before the show was even five minutes old, I’d threatened to kill one listener (I was joking, but it’s not exactly positive talk).
To help me get with the program, my spiritual mentor Dawn brought in the big Buddhist guns, introducing me to Tulku Yeshi Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who lives at the Sakya monastery in Seattle. As we sat over tea, I began to understand the bigger picture that loomed over my Speak No Evil experiment. “Words not like horse,” Tulku noted. “Horse you can catch once it is out and gone. Words, you can’t catch.”
I had been worrying about slips of the tongue, when apparently the key is to stifle words not when they’re in your mouth, but long before. As we sat, Tulku used one word over and over: silence. “When upset, silence is best. Just (pause) silence. Smile. Enjoy. Be happy. Silence. Gives time to think. Silence!” Whereas I was struggling with the concept of not sticking my foot in my mouth, if you look before you leap, there won’t be a time when something “just slips out.”
Week 4: The Power of Positivity
With a week to go, my main problem was no longer being a mindless smartass (now I’m a mindful one), but staying away from the plethora of mean-spirited websites I troll. Looking at their less-than-pure content with a new perspective, I now realized they feed the evil frenzy I’m attempting to avoid. “Celebrity Womanizers: The Sperminator’s Love Child!” (TMZ). “New Princess Di Death Pics!” (National Enquirer).
To help curb my paparazzic instincts, I had a second meeting with Tulku Yeshi. “It is very difficult to control the mind, even without the distractions you speak of,” he said. “If you need information, make a list of what you want, go to your computer, find this, and turn it off. You have control.” I got the picture: Focus! Use the media for tasks, but don’t aimlessly surf without purpose or it’ll suck the life out of you.
This was also the week I learned that having positive interactions with people—getting along—isn’t brain surgery, but it does take effort. After monitoring couples for decades, Gottman found that the key to marital stability was as simple as a compliment. Couples that succeed have a five to one ratio: five positive statements and interactions for every negative one, even during an argument. The couples who fail, on the other hand, get caught up in criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. With this in mind, I decided to give each person I encountered today a compliment: the waitress at the diner, the mailman, and so on.
Without exception, each compliment I delivered made the recipient light up. I found myself in surprisingly affirmative conversations: A pregnant lady, whom I said looked radiant, shared her struggle with getting knocked up and how happy she was. A teenager wanted to give me a demonstration of his skateboarding prowess after I told him his deck was rad.
At the end of the day I approached an elderly homeless gentleman and extended my hand, not sure what kind word I’d lay down. After a crushing shake, I told him what a warm and firm handshake he had. Thirty minutes later I’d learned about his recently deceased wife (the love of his life) and our mutual passion for the blues. Not to be too Oprah about it, but cultivating the habit of being positive is contagious.
The ongoing struggle in my mind regarding the failure of my marriage is not that it ended, but that it did not end on my terms. I am quite happy to have my freedom once again; for it all to have come crashing down with the discovery of an affair is the unpleasant part.
Turns out, the woman I waited 41 years to marry just wasn’t the right girl for me. Successful, long-term, committed relationships are a difficult proposal. It wasn’t that we didn’t have solid role models to observe: My folks have been married for 56 years, and hers almost 40. During those decades, issues arose and times got tough, but they worked through it. They put in the time and stayed dedicated. Not us.
On the last day of my Speak No Evil experiment, with Tulku’s mantras echoing in my head, I got online with new intentions. I visited the neighborhood blog for traffic and local burglary updates, then Facebook. Stifling the urge to ridicule several friends, I managed to “Like” three posts, including one from an acquaintance who successfully ran a marathon over the weekend. My modus was simple enough: Be nice, have some fun, then get the hell offline.
When I picked up my 16-year-old son for brunch, he handed me a Tupperware container full of cookies from my ex. Dozens of thoughts ran through my head: Were they poisoned? Was this supposed to make up for her abandoning our marriage? I took a breath and thought about my month, and all that I’d learned. What—if anything—did I really have to say about the matter? (Pause. Ponder.) “Thank Mom for the cookies, will you? It was a thoughtful thing to do.”
Michael A. Stusser is a Seattle-based writer whose work regularly appears in Mental Floss. Excerpted from Shambhala Sun (January 2012), a magazine inspired by the wisdom and compassion of Buddhist practice; a version originally appeared in Seattle Weekly (June 22, 2011).