'People feel you more than they hear you." Of all the wisdom offered by the collected celebrities in Esquire magazine's annual January "What I've Learned" feature, that line stuck with me.
People feel you more than they hear you. There's truth in that. Might surprise you who said it. He also said, "People remember what you repeat," which is why I repeated that first line.
People feel you more than they hear you. And he said, "You can't hold things against people if you don't want people to hold things against you." And this: "At the end of the day, most people are decent."
Who is this avuncular, amiable wisdom figure? Would you believe Rev. Al Sharpton? Most people recognize the name, and remember the brash, loudmouthed, big-haired preacher in the Tawana Brawley case years ago. People "felt" Al Sharpton then and didn't like what they were feeling, so they turned him off. But the people who actually listened to him during last year's presidential campaign and during his speech at the Democratic Convention came away saying, "You know, he's not as bad as I thought."
That's what I thought when I read his Esquire interview. I learned something from someone I didn't expect to learn anything from.
It made me think about my own experience as a purveyor of opinion. I've been writing columns for 20 years now, and I've always been mystified by how hard some people work at not hearing what you say. They twist meaning, select small items for excessive attention in order to ignore the bigger picture, even deliberately misrepresent what you say, sometimes wildly. Or they just don't read very carefully.
I always blamed it on "them."
Now I'm not so sure. As with the spoken word, I'm starting to think maybe some readers "feel" my writing more than they "read" it. Some like what they feel, so they take the next step and actually pay attention to what I'm saying (or trying to say?#34;good readers often have to overcome the imperfections of the communicator). Some readers, however, clearly don't like what they feel, so they simply can't break through to the content.
What do readers "feel" when they read this column? It could be anger, frustration, even hostility?#34;or maybe they feel my intense hunger for what's true and my contempt for what isn't. That's where the problem might lie, the age-old struggle to separate the message from the messenger?#34;along the same lines as "hating the sin but loving the sinner."
But should we even hate the sin? Should we hate untruth?
The answer, I've concluded, after 20 years of beating my head against my fellow citizens' force fields is "no." The impulse may be natural, but the result is futile. There is no battering ram that can break through someone's defenses. No matter how "true" the message behind the battering ram is, the only thing the person will focus on is the battering ram.
If someone picks up this column and "feels" it's armed and dangerous, they won't listen, even if they read the words.
That doesn't mean softening, seducing, cajoling or coaxing. You can't persuade someone by trying to convince them. Neither can you persuade someone by pretending not to try. You have to give up trying to persuade altogether.
You can't sell the truth. It has to sell itself.
There's a prayer framed on my bedroom wall that I've been reading for years, trying to ram it through my thick skull: "The power of love alone the world can sway. Good shall prevail. If nought but love reign in my heart today, nothing I do can fail."
People feel you more than they hear you. And they can't hear a word you say until they feel a little love first.