I have a lot to say most of the time. Even when I am being quiet, I am suppressing the urge to speak. This need to speak is vital to my being. To be heard is vital to my ego.
Unfortunately for me, the constant urge to contribute often comes from a mouth that lacks a proper filter. And it has gotten me into a pickle more than once. The consequences of not knowing when to be quiet have time and again sought to teach me the art of holding my tongue.
I was the one who mouthed off to a cranky mom in the middle of a slumber party and got most of the girls to pick up their sleeping bags and go to one of the other girl’s houses who lived one street over in the middle of the night. I scan my memory banks for justification on these actions but can’t remember much except that the mom was making us sleep on concrete floor of the uninsulated basement that had zero lighting and yelled at us because we weren’t asleep by ten. She may not have had realistic expectations about a pre-teen sleep over, but also, I was a disrespectful and surly kid.
But it isn’t that I was sassy to a grouchy mom that makes me cringe now. It was that I couldn’t even imagine how that girl felt when all the friends that she had invited over to her house for a slumber party to have fun and giggle together picked up our sleeping bags and left in the middle of the night. That is a real grimace inducing, toe-scruncher.
This same mouth took up a cause to single-handedly embarrass every member of my family with a dick joke at a family dinner. Not just my parents and brothers and sisters, but aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents … the whole shootin’ match. I was old enough to semi-understand why the joke was funny (the punch line is about a hard of hearing genie and a 13 inch pianist) but too old to be cute in the trashy kind of way it’s funny when a child says something they shouldn’t. The memory of the silence afterward still embarrasses me today.
I called my sister a nasty name once. She told on me. I got my mouth washed out with soap. Literally. But the Dove bar crammed down my throat didn’t solve the problem. I began a career of swearing alive and well to this day. There are times that my language was so bad that I had my peers say, “I don’t see a need to swear.” My wiseacre response was something to the effect of “then don’t.”
Come to think of it, the person that said that was a bit of a douche-bag. Also spelled right, by the way.
People have apologized to me when they accidentally swore around my kids. I laugh and tell them that my 2-year-old son was once muttering loudly upstairs G-- Dammit when he was frustrated about something, oblivious to the fact that these words were not appropriate to use since he heard them so often. I set him straight and tried to clean up my act after that, but I still let them fly sometimes. Usually when I am driving. Or late. Or more specifically driving when I am late.
In college, I challenged a teacher about an inaccuracy in his syllabus. I was right, but also confrontational and rude. I am sure it gave him great pleasure to give me one of my only Cs in my college career. I went to his office to challenge the grade. Not surprisingly, he was confrontational and rude. The C stayed.
Later in my college career, my unfiltered mouth struck again. A teacher was presenting his published paper about Faust and how he was superior to Huckleberry Finn as a literary hero or something like that. I don’t remember the particulars. I do remember that I suggested there was a flaw with the premise that Huckleberry Finn was a hero from American literature. I argued that perhaps a better example might have been Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird. After we had a show of hands, it was clear that the rest of the audience agreed. So he quit his presentation. I desperately hope that I made this argument after he finished presenting the paper. But I suspect I didn’t.
There are so many more examples of the situations that arise when one’s mouth lacks a proper filter that I couldn’t bear to add to this confession. I am starting to get depressed listing them all. I wish in so many ways that I had less to draw upon, that I had learned the lessons that embarrassment and consequence are meant to teach us earlier than post-college. If I had, I might have learned to nip it. Being unfiltered means you hurt a lot of feelings, make a lot of bad first impressions, lose friends, make enemies, and blow your college GPA.
You couldn’t have told me that, though. Back then the truth was, I liked being outspoken. I thought it made me a leader. I liked being the one who would tell the truth when no one else would. I wanted to be the hero who would slay the dragon of injustice with a fiery sword of words.
I always admired the people that could hold a room captive with their speeches. Like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” which still makes me cry. Or the speech my dad gave at my grandpas retirement dinner that was hilarious and had everyone laughing until they cried. I was in awe that people could have so much charisma to engross the attention of their audiences.
These orators could get people to laugh or cry by what they said. Even better, they could inspire them to greatness. I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be the one who could be counted on to lead a group to find the better in them selves.
I would bet, however, that MLK Jr. never hurt someone’s feelings about their age by joking that they might have been old enough to be part of the civil war. Like I did at a modeling shoot with a photographer. Who also happened to be black…and not very friendly after that comment.
That joke still wasn’t funny when I used it later with the creative director of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Needless to say when it was time to audition for the next tour, I didn’t get hired back. Did I mention that I regret how many times I had consequences try to teach me to tone it down, shut my pie hole, and be seen and not heard?
In my defense, I remember that one well enough to state that I thought using a war as ridiculously far back as the Civil War would make it absolutely clear that I was teasing. Instead, it was just absolutely clear that I was a Dunderhead.
After college GPA scores dropped and I suffered unemployment, I learned that I did not need to say everything I thought might get a laugh or correct every injustice. I also learned that if you sit back and let things settle there is almost always a good moment to bring something up more privately that allows the other person to accommodate your opinion or correction without losing pride. Plus you don’t have as many labels (Truck Driver, Skank, Hose-Beast, Dunderhead).
My life is much more pleasant as a result. I have more friends for one thing and not one of them has compared me to a Skank or Hose-Beast. I find that my opinions are still there and injustice still needs to be confronted, but not always by me. I have also learned to joke with people in a way that elevates not berates them. I also have learned to minimize exposure to people who bug me with their opinions so I won’t chime in with some unwanted repartee. Like, I suspect, many people probably did with me during my Big Mouth phase.
It’s okay to have opinions. It’s okay to want to be a great orator who inspires the masses. A leader knows when to express them and where. As an adult, I see that everything has pros and cons, bad situations always have at least two sides, and consequences can be swift and furious. I have a perspective as an adult that colors my choices differently then through the eyes of my younger, more-outspoken self. I may have finally grown a filter.
The need to be heard is still there. And do you know what people like me who need to speak and be heard end up doing with their time?