The Light of Context

When you figure that out, write it down,

he says. As if relationship were a concept, an abstract idea easily understood once pinned (or penned) down. But relationships, like words require context and that context is us. You. Me. Complex humans who cannot come to any word without interpretation specific to you, to me. Where ne’er the twain shall meet…?

I laughed when you said, “Write it down.”

You have no idea. Behind pages and screens I hide, safe at last to distill my thoughts into carefully crafted scripts. The words form a wall, my own personal fortress – the one place I can be truly me, whether anyone else understands or not. 

With you I force myself to speak, an attempt to be done with hiding. This time I will see, hear, know what comes of my words. The relationship that cannot bear the weight of them is a mirage, an oasis shimmering in the distance with only the empty promise of connection.

words too heavy
float like boulders in my mind
i fear the fall of their weight on
ears too fragile

Most often the words will not come. When they do, the anticipation of possible outcomes catch them in my throat. I watch you do it too, ill-prepared for the vulnerability that revelation invites.

Peter Pan Diamond Edition - Peter's Shadow Clip - YouTube
Peter tries to catch his shadow.

What if the fear is a lie, the mere shadow of a monster cast by our own egos upon that flat featureless expanse of time we see stretched out before us? Unlike Pan, we reject it, content to let it drag along behind, weighing us down with the burden of truths we are unwilling to face in the glaring light of context.

Finding Peace in a Violent World

My eldest daughter recently introduced our family to a practice called Nonviolent Communication

“NVC is about connecting with ourselves and others from the heart. It’s about seeing the humanity in all of us. It’s about recognizing our commonalities and differences and finding ways to make life wonderful for all of us.”

As I understand it, the basic premise is that in every human interaction, a request is being made. The principles found in Nonviolent Communication address 1. how the request is expressed, and 2. the response if/when the request is refused. 

To talk about Nonviolent Communication necessitates some discussion of its more prevalent opposite, violent communication. When it comes to communication, most people operate from ego or the unconsciously remembered pain of the past (often referred to as subconscious programming). After all, hurt people hurt people. Violent communication typically involves 1. a demand for particular behavior from another (in order to supposedly secure happiness), and 2. a refusal to take no for an answer without some form of retribution. Guilt and shame are commonly used to manipulate, and rarely, if ever, do communication issues find full resolution. 

Violent communicators have difficulty acknowledging their own needs. For instance, when person A accuses person B of saying or doing something person A dislikes, it is rare that person A is aware that they have an underlying need that is unmet. Further, if person B is unaware of person A’s unspoken need and/or their own underlying needs, the communication can be perceived as a personal attack, simultaneously triggering them as well. The ‘violence’ escalates when neither party is able to articulate or acknowledge their own underlying needs or find constructive ways to meet them. Violent communication is the basis for all broken relationships from the occasional spat with a spouse to all-out war between countries. 

The goal of Nonviolent Communication is the actualization of the natural capacity we all have for compassion and empathy towards one another. It involves the realization that everyone shares the same basic needs, and that each of us is personally responsible to meet those (our own) needs. Without this understanding put into practice, Nonviolent Communication is impossible.

The most important and challenging factor for me personally has been taking the time to identify the underlying unmet needs within myself and the person I am interacting with. Knowing these needs (or learning the questions that will help uncover them) develops both self-awareness and a deeper relationship with others (because, empathy). Communicating in a manner that seeks to meet everyone’s needs not only enhances our own well-being but can significantly strengthen our relationships. 

NVC teaches that every human being has seven basic needs:

  1. Connection
  2. Physical Well-Being
  3. Honesty
  4. Play
  5. Peace
  6. Autonomy
  7. Meaning

Beneath these larger topics are sublists of multiple emotional needs. So how do you identify your own or other’s underlying needs in the heat of the moment? By paying close attention to the body. When we are triggered by someone else’s words or behavior, it can be difficult to step back and observe, but that is exactly what is necessary in order to avoid escalating conflicts. The body is the key – recognizing and giving our attention to negative emotions and thoughts that arise during an interaction can mean the difference between violence and peace, resolution and discord. 

Over the past year or so, I have begun analyzing ‘triggered’ reactions (mine and other’s) in an attempt to learn a better, gentler way of communicating. Sometimes I have been able to avoid a conflict altogether, simply by taking the time to detach and look at the situation more rationally, while still listening to my body. Obviously the greatest hurdle to overcome is communicating nonviolently with people who approach me with violence. But responding with empathy and compassion can open doors to conflict resolution even when the person you are communicating with remains unwilling to acknowledge or explore their own unconscious behaviors and unmet needs.

The final key to nonviolent communication is forgiveness. We must begin by forgiving ourselves for the many ways we have used violent forms of communication in the past. By showing ourselves compassion and acknowledging that we are always doing the best we can with the information and experience we have, we can then extend this same grace to those around us. 

We all have needs, we all seek ways to meet those needs. As we do, may we learn to communicate with kindness, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. 

Thanks so much for reading! 

Namaste,

~C