I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said that if given the choice between a free government and a free press, heíd take the free press. T.J. knew the power of words. The Buddha did, too, and that, no doubt, is why he placed so much emphasis on Right Speech.
Thereís not an easier way to wreck your spiritual life than by breaking the rules of Right Speech. Other rules can be broken and then mended with a little conscious effort. But the need to improperly promote yourself or defend yourself is a need that comes from deep within you. It becomes a strategy for dealing with the every-day events of your life, a strategy thatís very hard to abandon. A prayerful reminder helps to counter-act that need. Itís good to get yourself into a routine of awareness. Every day, when I get in my car to go to work, as I turn the ignition key I say, "Lord, help me to do my job today without letting my mouth or my ears violate Right Speech." It isnít the Pater Noster, but it sure helps.
There are all sorts of ways speech can get us into trouble, but I learned long ago that "sour grapes" was one of the worst. It was in a locker room that I think I first really became aware of the damage this violation of Right Speech can cause.
Locker room talk is and always will be locker room talk. You wonít find Inaugural Addresses there... or sermons about chastity. But while the banter is usually harmless and even enjoyable, sometimes it can be pure venom. I once worked out with a guy who had a serious crush on the gymís office girl. He tried to hit on her every chance he got, but she never gave him the time of day. She was pleasant but she kept saying Ďno thanks.í Then a new guy started to work out with us and when he asked her out she accepted right away. When it was obvious that the two of them had become an item, the first guy, in a concerned and confidential manner, said, "I heard she had to quit her high school swim team because she had herpes. Poor kid. I always felt a little sorry for her." We all knew it was a lie and we all thought a whole lot less of him for it.
So this is the "sour grapes" strategy. In one way or another the person is saying, "I really didnít want what I tried so hard to get." Or even worse, "It really doesnít matter to me that my efforts came up short - since there was something wrong with it anyway." The "sour grapes" defense requires both the speaker and the listener to be tricked into overlooking all the eagerness and persistence that had just been exhibited. Thatís what Aesopís fox did. He couldnít jump high enough to get the grapes, so he forgave his own failure by consoling himself with the notion that the grapes were not only sour but probably wormy, too.
The fox, being the symbol of cleverness, does succeed in jumping at the chance to be the model for us to copy. Rather than accept a personal failure by acknowledging our shortcomings, or by keeping our mouths shut until we can at least cool down enough to unemotionally evaluate the circumstances that surrounded the failure, we copy the fox and come up with an immediate excuse. We need to convince ourselves and everybody else who witnessed our attempts that the outcome was all for the best.
What I have found to be even more troublesome is using "sour grapes" as a pre-emptive strike. In this variation, we actually prepare our egos and our witnesses to view a future failure as if it were actually the result we intended.
I recently worked with a junior executive whose career didnít seem to be getting anywhere. In my interactions with him I found him to be efficient, reliable and pleasant so I wondered what was holding him back. One day I learned he had applied for a promotion. I wished him luck and he responded that he really didnít care if he got the position or not. His demeanor changed and showed a reckless kind of bravado. His voice grew loud as he rattled off the reasons why the position would not be all that desirable... the nerve wracking responsibility... the added hours... on and on he went so boisterously that everyone around could hear him. The uncomfortable forcefulness of his argument reminded me of a Chinese proverb that says the louder and more emotionally you attempt to protect your point of view, the less you truly believe your own argument.
Whatís most interesting of all is how easily we can detect this tactic when someone else uses it and how blind we are to it when we use it. Iíve used Aesopís fox as my model many times and only in hindsight do I become aware of it. I wonder now how many of my friends were as aware of my use of the "sour grapes" ego-defense as I was aware of this junior executiveís use of it.
During my last year in the Air Force I told everyone that I didnít want the big promotion I had failed to get because I had decided to get out of the service. The promotion I supposedly didnít care about was partially based on a test score, a test that was notoriously difficult. I knew that I would have to study long and hard to pass it and so I started studying a year before the test. Most of my friends were aware of the long hours I was putting in hitting the books. Yet, here I was saying to them after I didnít get the promotion, "Well, thatís all right. It wasnít that great a job. Iím going to retire anyway. If I had gotten the promotion, Iíd probably stay in and get stuck doing work I didnít really enjoy doing." I was so crafty using the sour grapes technique that I actually believed what I was saying.
Hindsight tells a different story. I studied hard because the promotion meant so much to me. In the military, noncommissioned officers wear their position - and therefore their promotions - on their sleeve where itís a very visible reminder of a personís level of achievement. The stripe I wanted would have brought me a feeling of power, status, and prestige - not to mention a raise in pay. Yet there I was bad-mouthing the position I had tried so hard to get. I guess my friends thought it was good that I didnít get the job else theyíd all have felt obliged to send me a sympathy card.
And naturally, just like the fox, the excuse for failure wasnít enough to satisfy my ego. I had to go beyond "sour" to "wormy." I began to complain that the promotion system wasnít fair, that it wasnít based on performance but on seniority or favoritism. Now, I had never complained about the system earlier in my career when it was working to my benefit. I had been promoted much faster than others. As far as I was concerned it was the fairest system in the world. But after failing to get that final stripe, it was the systemís fault, not mine. I just couldnít admit that I was beaten out by people who no doubt deserved the promotion more than I did. My ego wouldnít let me accept the situation. I felt that I had been cheated out of what I had actually legitimately lost.
I grumbled about this loss and I let it destroy the sense of satisfaction I had always felt about my career in the military. I inflicted my foolish opinions on others and diminished their opinions of me. Itís one thing to lose something, but itís another thing to be a bad loser.
Since I began to follow the Eightfold Path Iíve tried to pay attention to all the steps. But as Iíve said, the one that seems most important to me is the one that uses words to hurt people, to deceive other people and ourselves, too, to perpetuate blindness towards our shortcomings and, in that blindness, to be unable to view faults constructively. Words can be so healing, so comforting and encouraging. They were never meant to be poisons.
And that is why, when I get in my car to go to work and turn the ignition key, I say a little prayer. Let me not violate Right Speech. Let me keep my mouth from serving my ego. Let me use it instead to comfort and encourage. Let me have the sense to walk away from gossip and from the foolish speech of others.
In Buddhismís vineyards, there are no sour grapes.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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