You and I: on language and human relations

There are a lot of things that I could tell you. Where shall I begin?

Let’s start with something obvious: you. You are important to me. My interest in you is what is organizing this communication.

However, I do not expect you to already understand exactly how you are important to me. So, that is why I am writing it- to promote your understanding of how you are important to me.

By reading this, you could learn something new about how you are important to me. By writing this, I may even learn something new as well (or through sharing it).

To emphasize, I am not focusing much on why you are important to me. I am focusing on how you are important to me. I can briefly address “why” in a couple of short paragraphs here and then be done with it.

For a child of mine, you are important as my child. A mother of my child is also notably important, especially during pregnancy (when the child’s life is so dependent on hers).

Everyone else who is supporting my child and their well-being is important. Anyone who could in the future contribute in any way to the support of my child (such as my employers) is important. Even people that I perceive as threats to the well-being of my child can be very important for the duration of any threat.

So when I reference how you are important to me, I am using language. Someone else can use language to also speculate about how they claim that you are important to me, but they are not me. I am the author of what I say. Other people can quote me or ignore what I say or argue with what I say. Any of that could be important to them and they can explain how and why.

This is not about what other people say. This is what I am saying.

This is my language that I am offering to you. This is me telling you something. You could say that I am showing you something through these words. I am directing your attention in a particular way to show you something through these words.

Your words are important to me. I respect you. I respect your language. I am interested in what you say.

Some people will be unusually interested in what you say. Some may even be threatened by things you could say.

I know that some people are more or less interested in what I say (including more or less threatened). It is also notable that in general some people are extremely relaxed about language (even numb to it) and others are quite anxious about language. I may be somewhere in between those two extremes: alert, attentive, and interested though calm overall.

Because language is important to me, I prefer to have a circumstance in life in which I can be free to devote my attention to language, including to whatever you say. I also consider language to be incredibly important to life, so I am interested in influencing the way(s) that you use language.

Many people learn to use language in just a few ways and then basically stop learning new ways to use it. They learn a number of patterns and then just keeping using those. Obviously that can work out for them, at least most of the time. However, people can also experience enormous amounts of stress about language simply because of a lack of attention to how language really works.

So here is some quick background on how language works. First, it organizes our attention (directing us to notice particular things as distinct from whatever we do not notice). Second, language is what we use to organize what we notice in to a perception or experience.

This is important. Of course there experiences that are independent of language (like just hearing some unfamiliar sound as a sound). However, language actually influences how we construct (create) experiences out of sensations and observations.

Language is what we use to organize experience. We use language to label everything that we label in our lives. We relate to things through language. We interpret our reality through language.

So, different people can create different experiences from the same observation. A famous case is when two people look at a container which has a certain amount of liquid in it. One might say “the glass is half full” and the other might say “it is half empty.”

Obviously, both ways of labeling make sense. Both are valid.

What is more remarkable is that sometimes people will argue over their own interpretation as if that is the only valid one. That is actually really strange. Someone can have so much terror or hysteria about their own interpretation that they seek for other people to continuously validate it, then attack anyone who fails to support it “enthusiastically enough” or even dares to directly question it or contradict it.

But that familiar example of the liquid in a container is not very important. I’m going to jump now to very different example.

Consider the announcement of “I am the victim here.” Notice that two people could argue about a type of interaction in which one is a villain by victimizing the other. The two people can argue over who is the victim and who is the villain.

Anyone claiming to be a victim is implying that “what happened is not what I wanted to happen.” They are probably saying “what happened should not have happened and, I am not at fault, but someone else is.”

We could even stretch the idea of victim to being the “victim” of a snowstorm. Even though the snowstorm is not a villain in the classic sense, we can use the snowstorm as an excuse. The status of victimhood could be used to construct a claim for special privileges like this: “I was one of the victims of the snowstorm, so the government should give me a free blanket.”

The victim is not saying that the government is responsible for the snowstorm. They are saying that the snowstorm is responsible for them deserving a blanket. Other people who were not victims of the snowstorm do not deserve a blanket as much as the victims.

Maybe their justification of their request for a blanket works. Maybe not.

So far, this may not seem any more important than the glass half full or half empty. Now let’s get more specific.

People may justify physical aggression. Justifying is just one thing that someone can do with language. People may justify absolutely anything and there are a lot of ways to do it (lots of explanations that can be offered).

Here is an example: “I was justified in withdrawing because I was terrified.” The idea is that my preference was not to withdraw, but I went against my preference because of a higher priority (an immediate concern for my physical safety).

If someone uses terror as an explanation for withdrawing, then the next question may be “what caused the terror?” That terror can then be justified as well.
There was a time that I withdrew from my child. I justified the withdrawal (which was not my preference) with terror. I justified my terror with concerns about future physical aggression.

To be clear, I am not saying now that I was a victim. People can debate over whether I was or not. I am just saying that at the time I related to the situation as a victim. That is how I used language to interpret what I observed.

So, someone in my life was willing to initiate the use of physical aggression against me. I understand that I was important to them and that is why they were so interested in me that they would use aggression. However, that was a very stressful situation for me.

Predictably, they justified their aggression. In a very ironic statement, they said that they related to me as if I was someone who had slapped them in the face. Of course, the implication there is that they did not want to be slapped (or did not deserve to be slapped).

The most ironic part was that they had struck me in the face. I did not ever strike them. Still, their narrative (their storyline) was that I was someone who struck them in the face, not that they were someone who struck me in the face.

Why did they strike me in the face? Their justification, in short, was that I was the villain in the situation.

First, they report that I may have been drinking alcohol in prior hours. Is that alone enough to justify striking me? No, they add to that. However, clearly the reference to their suspicion about drinking was that their suspicion is important to them in justifying their later aggression.

Next, I had been “too loud.” Is that alone enough to justify striking me? No, they add to that as well.

I did certain things and then did not do certain other things. So, they shouted at me and physically harrassed me, poking me repeatedly, harder and harder. I said stop repeatedly. I turned away. Then, they struck me in the face with the butt of their hand (which is harder than a slap with fingers).

However, they were angry and were just reaching fast to pull some bedcovers away from my face. Their strike was accidental.

They did not ever say (that I recall) that I deserved to be struck in the face, but just that they had been victimized by my inaction. So they deserved to be angry. They were the victim. They struck me (even though I was no threat to them) because they related to the situation as if they were the victim of a villain (a threat).

I understand that narrative. I understand the stress of someone who is operating from the constructed experience of being a victim.

I did not want to be the villain in someone else’s narrative. I did not want to continue my narrative of being their victim either.

However, I did not want to leave (to move away). I wanted to continue to be in the same house as my only child. I was concerned that the child’s mother would continue to operate from the same narratives that she had been displaying to me.

But for me to contribute to my child’s well-being the most, it might be best for me to live elsewhere. I recognized that possibility, but resisted it. So, I experienced stress (a conflict of preferences and priorities).

I had ideals about how families should work. I also had ideals about how people should act.

When other people do not keep to my ideals, I might react by labeling them a villain. When I do not keep to my ideals, I might justify that by blaming others.

If other people do not do what I expect, then I can resent them as unjustified (not justified according to my ideals). Or, if my ideals do not fit my observations, then I can update my ideals or expectations.

Here was one of the most disruptive ideals to my well-being: “everyone should always experience unconditional love toward everyone.” I now consider that to be delusional hysteria (even a state of mental illness). Holding that ideal can cause tremendous guilt because I experience a range of emotion, not just unconditional love.

Some people are more important to me (such as my own child) than others (such as an actor on TV). I do not ignore the differences that I notice between people. I like being around some more than others.

If I hold an ideal about how everyone should be, then everyone still includes me. When I know that I do not conform to that ideal, then the natural result is guilt. Guilt can lead to blaming others (vilifying them). I can look for how THEY did not fit MY ideal and then justify MY distress (guilt) with their “error.”

“Yes, I had a momentary failure to hold to my stressful ideal, but that does not reflect on my loyalty to the ideal. I was justified because I was the victim of a villain.”

How loyal should I be to any ideal? it is no big deal to have an ideal as a preference, but to use it as a justification to blame others and withdraw from them… is very common.

People can use ideals to justify staying and to justify leaving. Ideals and justifications go together.

Someone who does not worship ideals in language as more important than actual people does not need to worship justifications for the occasional violation of an ideal. The ideal is just not that important. The other people may actually be considered more important than the ideal.

So, be attentive to other people. Be attentive to their ideals and their idealism. Be attentive to the narratives that they construct in language about threats and villains and victims.

Be attentive to your own experience as well. If something causes your heartbeat to speed up, notice that. If something causes your heart to “skip a beat,” notice that too.

It is a relief to live without attention to stressful ideals, at least occasionally.  It is a relief to live without justifying the past (in regard to any failures to match an ideal). It can even be a relief just to have some private time to yourself in seclusion.

In case this was unclear, I am not whatever someone might imagine as the ideal for me to be. Whatever someone else might imagine about me, that is not a perfect match for me.

Am I a villain? To someone, perhaps that is a label that is important to them.

Am I a victim? To someone, perhaps that is a label that is important to them.

Am I “ideal?” To someone, perhaps that is a label that is important to them.

There is not just one set of ideals. There are many ideals. They are all preferences. They are preferences that are organized by certain interests and certain narratives (certain ways of using language). Some prefer to call a glass half full, while others prefer to call it half empty.

Some preferences are widely promoted, such as through repetition, rewards, and punishments. They are still just preferences stated in language.

Let people be more important to you than words. Let the words of certain people be more important to you than of others. Let certain words be the most important words.

Just keep in mind WHY you can make those words more important than others. Your well-being is important to me, along with the well-being of your kin and your offspring.

I want you to learn from me some of what I have learned about how language is important and how it is not. Language organizes what we notice and how we relate to what we notice. How we relate to what we notice is what we respond to. We respond to how we use language to relate to what we notice. We respond to how we use language. We respond to language.

The more important thing is not the language though, but the response. Our responses to language are the actions that produce results in our lives.

Because I am important to me, my results are important to me. Because my results are important to me, my responses (my patterns of behavior) are important to me. One type of behavior is language (and communication).

When you have the luxury to do so, and it is a luxury, be attentive to how different uses of language produces different experiences, producing different responses to the different experiences. From our responses come our results.

Different uses of language produces different experiences, responses to experience, and results. Language can be important.

But language is the instrument of more fundamental interests. Those interests are expressed in language, informing it, organizing it. How we use language is how life is organizing us.

I recommend unconditional respect for everyone all the time. I do NOT mean love or trust or adoration or affection or compassion. I mean an alertness to notice them for what they are, even as they change over time (as distinct from any ideals or preferences that we may have about them in relation to us).

I’m not saying that everyone deserves respect. I am saying that it is useful to me to respect them.

If I respect some people more than others, that is predictable. If I admire some more than others, that is predictable. If I value some more than others, that is predictable.

Part of how I organize my activities is in relation to you. The more that I interact with you, the more closely attuned my understanding can be to your experience. Your experience is important to me. You are important to me.

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