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The Karma of My Voice

October 30, 2013

Karma of My Voice

'Voices of Thunder' by JoePhilipson via Flickr.com

‘Voices of Thunder’ by JoePhilipson via Flickr.com

We all have a voice. Each voice has its karma.

Karma means action. It is the singular term for the collective causes and conditions that have given rise to the present moment, all the actions of the past leading to this. Were any of them absent, the moment would be otherwise. Newton would understand karma quickly as action and reaction. Einstein would understand it as the continuous exchange of matter and energy. Pop psychology calls it “baggage.” Ancestry.com wants to sell it to you in a monthly subscription. We all have our karma, the forces that shape us and make us who we are today and tomorrow and the day after that.

My voice has a lot of karma. When I was a child it took me a long time, too long, to discover that everyone doesn’t know what I know. My perception of the world is not a shared perception. There are walls between thoughts and feelings, surmounted only occasionally by words. I vividly remember the frustration of having to tell people what seemed so obvious to me? Why didn’t they already know? This karma sent me on a lifelong quest for clarity of communication. Keep it simple. Make it vivid. Find common ground.

When I was in school, my mother always told me to ignore the bullies. They only wanted attention. As right as she was, it was horrible advice. Never tell your children that. The bullies want attention, but they don’t want your attention. There is never a bully without an audience. I was thin and physically unremarkable (until I grew tall), but one day I learned to fight back with words, sharp and deadly weapons. Soon I had respect. Eventually even the bullies grew up into worthwhile people, but I stopped letting them make me miserable in the meantime. I stood up.

When I went away to college, I studied architecture, a very demanding field. Designing a building is complex, but I don’t actually think it’s hard. Surviving final critique, now that’s hard. Many a young woman (or man) crying in the bathroom. A first year attrition rate of half the class, by design. Maybe one in three survive into the third year; most transfer to less critical programs.

Those who remain learn to stand up in public and defend their work as the best, greatest, most magnificent building that ever was (though they know it isn’t), to answer every professor’s question, to circumvent every logical objection, to appeal to every emotional weakness, and throw back every critique. These are professional bullies and we take their slings and arrows without batting an eye.

We learn how to describe our design concept in one word, our goal in one sentence, and out solution in an elevator pitch. We communicate with diagrams and drawing and color. We gain poise and professionalism, but we also build those walls higher, towering fortifications of ego. I had built my wall very high, indeed, but now I got a good view from the top when I climbed over it and I could see how much more there was.

I studied urban planning in graduate school. I learned how to listen to communities, how to assess needs and get genuine feedback on solutions, not just ego-aimed barbs. I joined the student government and stood for the opposition more often than not in four-hour debates. Afterward my opponent would thank me for my voice (and for loosing the vote). Nebraskans living up to our legacy of pragmatic hospitality, even in governance with million-dollar budgets on the line.

Somewhere in the midst of these battles, I found the Buddha. I learned to sit with my mind, listen mindfully, walk mindfully, eat mindfully, and, hardest of all, speak mindfully. Speak only when needed and always (in theory) with compassion and wisdom. This is very hard. I blogged to connect with other Buddhists thousands of miles away. That was seven years ago.

One day a man came to the retreat center I was working at over the summer. We chatted, hung out with friends, laughed and cried. No one was ever quite sure who he was or why he was there, but it was the same for all of us, so welcome. He was a New York Times travel writer, we discovered later, and he published a link to my blog in his next column. Fifteen seconds of fame, but enough to get me a new gig when I got home. Suddenly I was writing an opinion column in the student newspaper, first every other week, then every week, with eleven thousand print copies and more on the web. Then I was an assistant editor and then a section editor.

Writing opinion was different than blogging, different from academia. I found a new voice. When I worked with other columnists as an editor, I helped them find their voices. Some of them are still writing and we keep in touch. My co-editor for the section was a devout Christian and we edited each other’s columns, strengthened each other’s arguments. I helped him get his publicly-proclaimed Christian message out there and he helped me spread my subversive, never-to-be-named-as-such Buddhist message. I learned to see past my walls and the walls of others.

Then I left it all behind, the architecture, the planning, the newspaper, the student government, and Nebraska, too. I came west and learned Buddhism and non-violent communication and reflective listening and the vast, vast differences between a culture of explicit (horribly rude) communication and one of implicit (frustratingly subtle) communication. I learned diplomacy and the art of relationship building. I added the subtle poetry and vibrant metaphor of theological writing to my well-developed academic double-speak. Most important, I learned to listen more and talk less (though not to write less, I’m afraid).

I’m still too outspoken, but now I own it. My walls are still too high, but now I’m tearing them down. I still stand up, but sometimes I do so with quiet power. I still keep it simple, but I don’t expect that will always be enough to get my message across. I’m always hunting for common ground, but usually only finding common islands in a vast uncommon sea. C’est la vie. This is the karma of my voice.

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