Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Right to Free Speech and Knowing When to Shut It

This is NOT a political commentary.

Recently, I went for my annual eye exam.  Since our insurance changed late last year, this meant going to a differrent eye doctor.  After the usual pleasantries, I sat down in the dentist-y looking chair and the eye doctor began asking questions. "So what do you do?", he asked.  This is a question I loathe, as I do not have a traditional job that can be easily explained.  My own job description would sound something like this: I am a dreamer, a seeker, a wonderer and an artist.

I replied, somewhat confidently, "I am an artist."
Eye doctor:  "Oh, so what do you paint, landscapes?"
Me: "No, I'm a mixed media artist."
Eye doctor:  "So you're an abstract painter!"
Me (less confidently):  "Um, no. I do collage, painting, that sort of thing."

By this time my ego was deflated like a balloon in a lightening storm.  I decided to change the subject.  I asked him where he was from (he had a distinct Long Island accent). He told me the name of the city he was from, how he came to live in my part of the state, and a little bit about his family.  Then, noticing that I was a good listener and not likely to budge from my chair without having my eye exam completed, he launched into a tirade about how alzheimers was eating away at his elderly father and how he had no qualms abut putting a pillow over his head and putting him out of his misery. He was dead serious (no pun intended), and reiterated his statement many times.

It was one of the few times in my life when I've been completely speechless.  Although I was decidedly uncomfortable with the turn our conversation, did I leap out of my chair and shout, "You want to kill your father???  You're a bad person!"  Nope, I kept my mouth shut.  I sensed that something had happened recently, perhaps even that morning, and his father had taken a turn for the worse.  Or maybe he was stressed out.  As inappropriate as the conversation was, this man had a right to express his opinion.  I stayed silent while he ranted on, and eventually he settled down to give me my exam.

One of my virtual mentors, Danielle LaPorte, says that we should all have opinions, and I agree.  That's what makes Danielle so successful, she shoots straight from the hip and doesn't give a damn if you like it or not.  However, I also believe in manners and being sensitive to others.  This is not the same as political correctness, which is just plain bullshit.  This is about knowing when and where to express your strong, and perhaps controversial, opinions and when to keep your mouth shut out of respect for others.  A little discernment goes a long way.

Now I'm off to work on my elevator speech!

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