Positive Talk, Negative Talk

(The Nationalist, 11 May 2007)


Suppose someone gave you a euro every time you spoke or thought well of a person, and took a euro from you every time you spoke or thought badly of a person, would you be richer or poorer at the end of the year? That’s a difficult question to answer, but one that’s worth spending time thinking about.

I put it recently to boys and girls in seven classes in a secondary school. In each class, most agreed that they would be poorer at the end of the year. They said they spent a lot of time bad-mouthing their friends.

I was surprised at the high level of agreement among them that negative talk outweighs the positive among them. A lot of what goes on in our heads, it seems, is negative. I don’t think that does us, or anyone else, much good. And speaking negatively to a person doesn’t seem to be any more help than speaking badly about them. Few of us are motivated to change our behaviour for the better because of negative criticism, finger-pointing, blaming, accusations, etc. A word of praise, support, appreciation, respect, or understanding is more likely to create in a hearer a disposition to be receptive.

But there’s more to the question I asked the children than that. Is it not true to say that we see others as we see ourselves? Our attitudes towards others reflect our attitudes towards ourselves. If we see others negatively, and speak of them negatively, it is likely that we see ourselves in the same way. Many people live below their best; they think their way into a negative view of themselves. But most of us are better than we think we are. I keep saying that to the school children, and they seem surprised by it. So those boys and girls not only thought badly of others; they thought badly of themselves, too. That couldn’t have been doing them any good. It, so to speak, gives them a bad reputation to live down to.

Why did we have such a poor self-image? It’s not something we’re born with; it seems it’s acquired through our environment – family, neighbours, school, work-mates, etc. Is a poor self-image a hangover from a colonial past, or does it run deeper than that? It has nothing to do with humility; indeed it’s a parody of humility, which is able to recognize the truth, face it, and name it. A truly humble person could say, ‘I’m a good person, I have good qualities, and they’re a gift from God, for which I’m grateful.’

Once upon a time there lived a person who was a fully integrated human being. His thoughts, words, and actions were in harmony. He was self-possessed in all circumstances, neither pushed around nor pressured by others, nor carried away by the fashions, fads, and fancies of his time. He was independent in his thinking, encouraged others to think, and challenged many of the conventions of his time. He was an immensely positive person. He had more influence on the human race than any other person in history.

I am referring, of course, to Jesus of the gospels. If you read the gospels, you’ll find it to be true. Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’. They are two sides of one coin. They help and support each other.