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Author of this essay:

Da Shi Yin Zhao

by Da Shi Yin Zhao

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said that if given the choice between a free government and a free press, he'd 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.

There's 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 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 that's very hard to abandon. A prayerful reminder helps to counter-act this need and since you speak everyday, you need to get yourself a daily 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 isn't 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 first became aware of the damage that violating Right Speech can cause.

Locker room talk is and always will be locker room talk. You won't find Inaugural Addresses there... or sermons about chastity. Usually the banter is harmless and even enjoyable, but sometimes it can be worse than a snake bite.

I once worked-out with a guy who had a serious crush on the gym's 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, "No thanks."

Then a new guy started to work-out with us, and when he asked her out she accepted. As soon as it became obvious that the two of them had become an item, the first guy, in a concerned and confidential manner, turned to a group of us and 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 didn't want what I tried so hard to get." Or even worse, "It really doesn't matter to me that my efforts to get it came up short - since there was something wrong with it anyway." The "sour grapes" defense requires that both the speaker and the listener rewrite the history of frustrated attempts so that failure can be converted into good fortune. That's what Aesop's fox did. He couldn't jump high enough to get some grapes, so he redeemed his failure with the certainty that the grapes were not only sour but probably wormy, too.

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 evaluate the circumstances that surrounded the failure, we copy the fox and come up with an immediate rationalization. We need to convince ourselves and everybody else who witnessed our inadequacy that the outcome was all for the best.

An even more troublesome extension of the "sour grapes" defense can be found in the "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 didn't seem to be getting anywhere. since I found him to be efficient, reliable and pleasant, I wondered what was holding him back. One day I learned he had applied for a promotion, and so I wished him luck. His demeanor suddenly changed. He responded that he really didn't care if he got the position or not. His voice grew loud as he rattled off reasons why the position would not be all that desirable... the nerve wracking responsibility... the added hours. Everyone in the office looked at us, wondering what had caused such an outburst from him. On and on he went. The forcefulness of his argument reminded me of a Chinese proverb that says the louder you state your case, the less you believe your own argument.

It's interesting to note how easily we can detect this tactic when someone else uses it and how blind we are to it when we use it. I've resorted to the tactics of Aesop's fox many times, and only in hindsight have I been aware of it.

During my last year in the Air Force I told everyone that I didn't want the promotion I had failed to get because I had decided to leave the service.

The promotion I supposedly didn't want 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 didn't get the promotion, "It's just as well. It wasn't that great a job. I'm going to retire anyway. If I had gotten the promotion, I'd probably stay in and get stuck doing work I didn't 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 on their sleeve where it's a very visible reminder of a person's level of achievement. The additional 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 didn't get the job else they'd all have felt obliged to send me a sympathy card.

And naturally, just like the fox, the excuse for failure wasn't enough to satisfy my ego. I had to go beyond "sour" to "wormy." I began to complain that the promotion system wasn't fair, that it wasn't 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 system's fault, not mine. I just couldn't admit that I was beaten out by people who no doubt deserved the promotion more than I did. My ego wouldn't let me accept the situation. I felt that I had been cheated out of what I had 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. It's one thing to lose something, but it's another thing to be a bad loser.

Since I began to follow the Eightfold Path I've tried to pay attention to all the steps. But as I've 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 were meant to comfort and inform. 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: "Lord, 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 Buddhism's vineyards, there are no sour grapes.

Humming Bird
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