554. Taking Things Literally

I’m not perfect. Neither is anyone else, as far as I know. But I like to grow, and I like it when I see other people growing. We all start out life making all kinds of mistakes, and if we live well, we learn to stop making some of them. But there’s an endless stream of mistakes to be made, so we’re in no danger of running out of ways to grow. I hope and plan to keep on learning from my mistakes and growing as long as I live.
As I write this essay, it’s raining. It’s also the first day of school for children. I feel like saying that it always rains on the first day of school, and on Halloween. I know that’s not true, but the child in me thinks it’s true. I’m an adult, so I usually substitute the word “often” for “always” in such statements. I’ve learned how to speak the language of moderation. I’ve learned how to be more accurate. But still, the sentence “It ALWAYS rains on the first day of school” feels more true. Even though I remember exceptions.
I used to point out children’s errors when they used the words “always” and “never” inappropriately. Sometimes I’d simply correct them, and sometimes I’d sort of make fun of them. When I kidded them, I tried to
convey good-naturedness, and I’m pretty sure I succeeded. But I was dwelling on the words too much, and not listening enough to the feelings. Whether or not “always” or “never” were literally accurate in their complaints, the complaints were real, and I should have spent more energy listening. Not that I could do anything about the rain, but children deserve to have their feelings heard.
The way I used to have of sometimes taking things very literally when they were obviously not meant literally was not one of my charms. Sometimes, children and other people like to use language to express what they feel. Sometimes, though what they think may be right on target, the words they use to express what they feel may not be factually accurate. Some listeners may be too analytical for some talkers, and so there can be a communication problem.
If we really want to communicate with each other, we’ve got to be flexible listeners. We may pride ourselves on our ability to be precise. I do. But sometimes we’ve got to think a little less about what is said and a little more about what is meant. When we hear “It ALWAYS rains on the first day of school,” though we may feel like answering, “No it doesn’t; in it didn’t,” an answer that could communicate better might be, “I know what you mean. Don’t you wish it were sunny?” And that kind of answer can actually make a cloudy day seem a little sunnier.

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