Truly good advice rarely comes accompanied by trumpets and tympani. It doesn’t light up the sky with neon colors, or advertise itself like a hot new product with a crack marketing team. Truly good advice – words of wisdom, if you will – is simply spoken. It doesn’t need to be remembered because it’s never forgotten. It applies in circumstances so far removed from its original context you can’t help but be amazed, and its ability to bear time’s testing is absolute.
One of the best bits of advice I ever received was so simple, and so simply put, I’ve never forgotten it, even when I’ve chosen to ignore it or attempted to reject it outright:
Be careful who you listen to, because their voices will influence your own.
The influence of the voices around us is utterly pervasive and often quite surprising. When I first moved from Iowa to Texas, the Texans with whom I lived and worked asked “Where you from, girl? You shore do talk funny!” After three years, I returned to Iowa from Texas only to have friends and relatives ask, “Why in the world are you talking that way?” Phrases like “ya’ll” (and its plural, “all y’all”) and “fixin’ to” had become a part of my speech simply because I heard them on a daily basis. That’s the power of voice.
To put it another way, what surrounds us, becomes us. If we listen to hatred, we are more likely to speak in a hateful way. If we continually hear cynicism and negativity from those around us, we are more like to become cynical and pessimistic ourselves. If we listen only to Homer Simpson and Spongebob Squarepants, we’ll speak in one sort of voice. If we listen only to Shakespeare, we’ll speak in another. The point is not that we should choose one voice over another – Homer Simpson and Shakespeare both have a place in my world – but we need to be attentive to and aware of the quality of the voices around us. We have the ability to choose which voices we attend to and cherish, and we need to make those choices in order to nurture and protect our own true voice.
Recently, I’ve formulated a corollary to my rule about voices. It says,
Be careful what you look at, because your visions will influence your voice.
Like rubberneckers on a freeway, we often seem compelled to fixate on the accidents of life. We may not buy supermarket tabloids, tune in to Dog, the Bounty Hunter or sit by our police scanner on Saturday night, but there is something about murderous parents, chemical spills, natural disasters, genocide, police stand-offs and the Paris Hiltons of the world that draw our attention. When it happens, the trick is knowing how to look away.
A perfect example is Galveston after hurricane Ike. Even after roads were cleared, debris piles had begun to disappear and life for those outside the worst-hit areas had begun to improve, the media continued to show file footage and photographs from days immediately after the storm. The storm was dramatic, and the damage was worse. But, as a business owner on the Seawall said, “We don’t need the world to see those images, over and over. If they think that’s what it looks like, they’ll tell their friends not to come. And we need people to come.” A simple example of vision, influencing voice.
A week ago, I took time to look at Galveston not through the lens of the media, but through the lens of my own camera and with my own eyes. Though I’ve returned to the coast several times since the storm with friends and colleagues, I went alone, wandering and reflecting as I went.
At Benno’s, a wonderful Cajun seafood restaurant on the Seawall, the proprietress said, “The beach never has been more lovely, nor the sea more beautiful.” That day, at least, she was right. There is no denying the scent of disaster still floats through the air. The piles of debris remain, food kitchens still provide for those unable to provide for themselves and the disaster relief teams are digging in. But in the midst of the chaos, there are visions of beauty. They’re part of reality, too.
I’m certainly no photographer, but I love these images, taken just a month after Hurricane Ike. In my files, I’ve labeled them “stormshh”. It’s the sound of the water, shushing us as a mother would quieten her child. Combined with the words of Tristan Jones, a voice I have learned to trust, I find them calming. After such a storm, nature’s calms are to be cherished.
The Sea knows nothing of money or power.
She knows only loyalty and audacity and determination and courage
and, by God, she knows an unthinking, unseeing fool when she encounters one.
She knows awareness.
She knows patience.
She knows staunchness.
She knows foresight.
Yet she knows nothing of our longing for riches or fame or even of our efforts to overcome or thwart her.
She gives an illusion of freedom,
but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline, and a deep belief in the grace of God.
If we have none of these attributes
when we join her,
we shall have them when we have known her
for any length of time,
or we will be defeated or dead.
~ Tristan Jones