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Your Red Pen

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

We all know the pain and humiliation of being the victim of an unedited speaker.

It's a lot of fun to be an editor. You don't have to create the original product; you don't have to agonize over thoughts and expressions. You get to fine tune someone else's work. You get to make it ready for presentation. It's the thrill of the finished product with a lot less of the tedium along the way (a little like being grandparents!)

But while editing the work of others is fun, editing ourselves is not. If you're a writer and you have to painstakingly review what you've written, try to get a fresh perspective and then excise significant portions of your work, it can be extremely painful. Not all of us are writers (I have no novel lurking inside of me just waiting to get out), but there is an area of all of our lives in desperate need of editing: our speech.

How many relationships could have been salvaged if we applied our red pen to our speech as well as our paper?

While it may be hard to look inward, we can all look outward and recognize a friend or family member who would benefit from some judicious editing. It's ironic that we're so careful about what we write but allow the words to trip off our tongue unchecked. How many relationships could have been improved or salvaged if we applied our red pen to our speech as well as our paper?

We all know the pain and humiliation of being the victim of an unedited speaker.

Whether from lack of self-awareness, lack of caring or "in the name of openness and honesty," the speaker vents their negative impression of us. Not only do we not appreciate and grow from this "helpful" perspective, we usually pull back from any further contact with said speaker. It's self-preservation.

Using the virtue of honesty as a guise is disingenuous as well. This is not what the Torah means by keeping far from lies. On the contrary -- we are permitted to (slightly) distort the truth for the sake of peace. Just as the Almighty refrained from telling Abraham that Sarah said he was old (he was a spry 99 at the time!), so too should we muffle our negative opinions, especially when their expression will be hurtful and unproductive. If your friend has already purchased that dress, it is only flattering. If she's still deciding, you can gently steer her towards another item.

"Being honest" is frequently just an excuse for avoiding the effort of self-editing. "Being honest" is not an expression or true love or friendship but rather a reflection of moral laziness. If I really care, I will think before I speak. If I really care, I will carefully evaluate my words. If I really care, I will ask myself "Could these words cause pain? Does this information need to be communicated? Is there a gentler way?"

That is certainly how we want others to treat us, and it's how we should treat them.

We also need to practice a little self-censorship to help avoid these painful interactions. If we are forever asking, "Do I look fat?" "Do I look old?" "Did I do a good job?" then we are inviting criticism. We are creating a stumbling block for the listener. We shouldn't try to force constant compliments. We may not get back what we bargained for.

Just as a magazine or newspaper editor does have to eliminate serious flaws in the pieces presented for his perusal, so we all have character flaws that require attention. But unlike the authors above, we are usually aware of our bad habits and more likely to tackle them when feeling loved and secure.

Editing others is easy. Editing oneself is a lot of work. Editing others is a lonely road. Editing oneself leads to a life filled with warmth and caring and the friendship and love of others. Red pen anyone?

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