unmentionables

white cotton briefs/underwear hanging on a clothes line

I’ve always thought it a little strange that we as a culture are conditioned to believe that certain topics are taboo.

Unmentionables, if you will.

I’m not sure who decided what made The List. Perhaps it was the same unmentionable “they” who are so often referred to in cultural lore:

“They say people hide razor blades in caramel apples.”

“They say you shouldn’t swim within thirty minutes after you eat.”

“They say the average person swallows eight spiders a year while sleeping.”

Pure poppycock, of course. But such things have been passed on for so long now that they feel true; and so we continue to live in their shadow, crouching in corners from boogeymen of our own making.

It seems much the same process accounts for what “should” or “should not” be spoken about with others:

Don’t get into it with politics.

You might come up against someone who doesn’t see the world the way you do, and that would surely lead to fisticuffs. Worse still, someone may calmly and rationally introduce an idea you hadn’t considered before, challenging your dyed-in-the-wool stance; and, frankly, that kind of thinking could only be catastrophic. Conversing, after all, is about debating and being right. And your favorite news station will always tell you that you’re right. So play it safe.

Don’t breathe a word about your family struggles.

It’s a real drag for everyone else (whose relationships are perpetual bliss) to have to hear about it. Seeking help or input is a sign of weakness; better to seem strong in your weakness than to show your weakness and potentially gain strength. Just bite your tongue, tough it out and hope for the best.

Don’t talk about aging or dying, yours or anyone else’s.

It’s sad and it’ll bring people down. Yes, we will all eventually arrive there. Perhaps, even now, you’re caring for declining parents and facing that inevitable goodbye. But talking about it—big no-no. Regardless of your thoughts and feelings and worries and wonderings, it’s best to keep them to yourself and maintain the unspoken illusion that you’re at perfect peace with it all—as if it’s nothing more than walking off into the beautiful golden sunset, just like in the movies.

This list of unmentionables could go on and on.

It seems a shame that we’ve bought into this notion that we are such frail beings that we’d surely turn to dust if we stirred up much beyond pleasantries and platitudes. That we’ve been lulled into the mundane rhythm of talking about little more than the weather or the big game or what we thought of the latest film.

That said, ironically, I’m going to tell you what I thought of the latest film.

It was A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Tom Hanks brings to vibrant life the true story of Mister Rogers and his relentless empathy for a struggling young journalist. It truly is a beautiful film. But that beauty transcends “the story,” underscoring the power of vulnerability, the magic of a thoughtful question and the wisdom of giving people the space to feel what they feel.

Without giving away too much, there is one point where members of a family fall into an awkward silence when one of them acknowledges aloud his own serious illness. Fred Rogers is in their company. Of note, he allows that silence to remain unbroken for quite a while, aware that he is a guest who is merely visiting this deeply personal moment. His eyes move around the circle, stopping on each person there. Most quickly look down or away. One however meets his gaze with glassy eyes, a quirk of mouth seeming to convey, Sorry you got stuck in the middle of this.

Eventually, Mister Rogers draws in a slow breath, smiles, then speaks with quiet assurance about the “taboo” reality they are all facing together:

“This is human.” Downcast eyes flick toward him, hungry for hope, as he continues. “If it’s human, it’s mentionable. And anything mentionable is manageable.”

Then, as if to be sure they understand him, he repeats the last part once more…

“Anything mentionable is manageable.”

The Best Advice So Far: "If it's human, it's mentionable. And anything mentionable is manageable." —Mr. Rogers

And with those words, the heavy chokehold breaks.

Please understand, I’m not in any way against friendly chit-chat. By all means, exclaim what a lovely day it is when the sun is shining. Root, root, root for the home team. Inquire about the holidays or weekend plans. I do. And I enjoy it.

Nor am I saying that we should let concerns or struggles or unpleasantness consume our thoughts or conversations. Sometimes, in fact, the healthiest thing might even be to set them aside for a time.

I’m simply suggesting, along with Mister Rogers, that we ought not continue to ascribe to this dodgy notion of “unmentionables”—keeping our mouths sealed for fear of spiders in the night.

A fear-driven life is a terribly small one indeed.


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