I come from a family where being smart was nearly everything.
My mother, who by certain measures was the smartest of us all, offered lots of bits of advice over the years. But her most recurring theme with me was about keeping my mouth shut. “No one will ever marry you with that mouth,” she once said. I was probably 22 or so at the time. Her words were, need I say, prophetic.
But it began much earlier than that. The lesson she kept trying to teach, which I kept failing to learn, was that it was perfectly fine to have thoughts that you didn’t share. Maybe they were called “white lies” at that time. Good lies. Lies that were designed to make someone feel better not worse. For example, she said, “You don’t have to tell Rochelle that the brand new dress she’s wearing is unflattering. You could tell her what a beautiful fabric the dress is made of, or what stunning colors.”
Rochelle was one of the tough girls in my junior high, bordering on what in those days passed for a “hoodlum, but at the time she meant everything to me. She had a big warm personality and went after what she wanted. And maybe I envied her her talent for being “bad”: to brazenly come to class with some lame excuse for not having done her homework, because she’d spent the day before hanging out with friends rather than working on it, or to talk back to her teachers when the spirit moved her.
At some point Rochelle and I went our separate ways. There were no hard feelings. It was just one of those things. And under my mother’s strict tutelage, I did manage to keep my mouth shut. But that lesson, about not saying what you think, never really stuck. I’ve had to keep relearning it, over and over again.
For a time, I think, I prided myself on my ability to say what I truly thought, the consequences be damned. The rest of the world might be hypocrites and liars, but at least I was not.
But these days, there’s cold comfort in that. I can no longer even count on two hands the number of former friends I’ve alienated in one way or the other over the years. I’m well into my toes.
Soon those will be used up as well.