I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said that if given the choice
between a free government and a free press, he'd take the free press. T.J. knew
the power of words. The Buddha did, too, and that, no doubt, is why he placed
so much emphasis on Right Speech.
There's not an easier way to wreck your
spiritual life than by breaking the rules of Right Speech. Other rules can be
broken and then mended with a little conscious effort. But the need to improperly
promote yourself or defend yourself is a need that comes from deep within you.
It becomes a strategy for dealing with the every-day events of your life, a strategy
that's very hard to abandon. A prayerful reminder helps to counter-act that need.
It's good to get yourself into a routine of awareness. Every day, when I get in
my car to go to work, as I turn the ignition key I say, "Lord, help me to
do my job today without letting my mouth or my ears violate Right Speech."
It isn't the Pater Noster, but it sure helps.
There are all sorts of ways
speech can get us into trouble, but I learned long ago that "sour grapes"
was one of the worst. It was in a locker room that I think I first really became
aware of the damage this violation of Right Speech can cause.
talk is and always will be locker room talk. You won't find Inaugural Addresses
there... or sermons about chastity. But while the banter is usually harmless and
even enjoyable, sometimes it can be pure venom. I once worked out with a guy who
had a serious crush on the gym's office girl. He tried to hit on her every chance
he got, but she never gave him the time of day. She was pleasant but she kept
saying 'no thanks.' Then a new guy started to work out with us and when he asked
her out she accepted right away. When it was obvious that the two of them had
become an item, the first guy, in a concerned and confidential manner, said, "I
heard she had to quit her high school swim team because she had herpes. Poor kid.
I always felt a little sorry for her." We all knew it was a lie and we all
thought a whole lot less of him for it.
So this is the "sour grapes"
strategy. In one way or another the person is saying, "I really didn't want
what I tried so hard to get." Or even worse, "It really doesn't matter
to me that my efforts came up short - since there was something wrong with it
anyway." The "sour grapes" defense requires both the speaker and
the listener to be tricked into overlooking all the eagerness and persistence
that had just been exhibited. That's what Aesop's fox did. He couldn't jump high
enough to get the grapes, so he forgave his own failure by consoling himself with
the notion that the grapes were not only sour but probably wormy, too.
fox, being the symbol of cleverness, does succeed in jumping at the chance to
be the model for us to copy. Rather than accept a personal failure by acknowledging
our shortcomings, or by keeping our mouths shut until we can at least cool down
enough to unemotionally evaluate the circumstances that surrounded the failure,
we copy the fox and come up with an immediate excuse. We need to convince ourselves
and everybody else who witnessed our attempts that the outcome was all for the
What I have found to be even more troublesome is using "sour grapes"
as a pre-emptive strike. In this variation, we actually prepare our egos and our
witnesses to view a future failure as if it were actually the result we intended.
I recently worked with a junior executive whose career didn't seem to be getting
anywhere. In my interactions with him I found him to be efficient, reliable and
pleasant so I wondered what was holding him back. One day I learned he had applied
for a promotion. I wished him luck and he responded that he really didn't care
if he got the position or not. His demeanor changed and showed a reckless kind
of bravado. His voice grew loud as he rattled off the reasons why the position
would not be all that desirable... the nerve wracking responsibility... the added
hours... on and on he went so boisterously that everyone around could hear him.
The uncomfortable forcefulness of his argument reminded me of a Chinese proverb
that says the louder and more emotionally you attempt to protect your point of
view, the less you truly believe your own argument.
What's most interesting
of all is how easily we can detect this tactic when someone else uses it and how
blind we are to it when we use it. I've used Aesop's fox as my model many times
and only in hindsight do I become aware of it. I wonder now how many of my friends
were as aware of my use of the "sour grapes" ego-defense as I was aware
of this junior executive's use of it.
During my last year in the Air Force
I told everyone that I didn't want the big promotion I had failed to get because
I had decided to get out of the service. The promotion I supposedly didn't care
about was partially based on a test score, a test that was notoriously difficult.
I knew that I would have to study long and hard to pass it and so I started studying
a year before the test. Most of my friends were aware of the long hours I was
putting in hitting the books. Yet, here I was saying to them after I didn't get
the promotion, "Well, that's all right. It wasn't that great a job. I'm going
to retire anyway. If I had gotten the promotion, I'd probably stay in and get
stuck doing work I didn't really enjoy doing." I was so crafty using the
sour grapes technique that I actually believed what I was saying.
tells a different story. I studied hard because the promotion meant so much to
me. In the military, noncommissioned officers wear their position - and therefore
their promotions - on their sleeve where it's a very visible reminder of a person's
level of achievement. The stripe I wanted would have brought me a feeling of power,
status, and prestige - not to mention a raise in pay. Yet there I was bad-mouthing
the position I had tried so hard to get. I guess my friends thought it was good
that I didn't get the job else they'd all have felt obliged to send me a sympathy
And naturally, just like the fox, the excuse for failure wasn't enough
to satisfy my ego. I had to go beyond "sour" to "wormy." I
began to complain that the promotion system wasn't fair, that it wasn't based
on performance but on seniority or favoritism. Now, I had never complained about
the system earlier in my career when it was working to my benefit. I had been
promoted much faster than others. As far as I was concerned it was the fairest
system in the world. But after failing to get that final stripe, it was the system's
fault, not mine. I just couldn't admit that I was beaten out by people who no
doubt deserved the promotion more than I did. My ego wouldn't let me accept the
situation. I felt that I had been cheated out of what I had actually legitimately
I grumbled about this loss and I let it destroy the sense of satisfaction
I had always felt about my career in the military. I inflicted my foolish opinions
on others and diminished their opinions of me. It's one thing to lose something,
but it's another thing to be a bad loser.
Since I began to follow the Eightfold
Path I've tried to pay attention to all the steps. But as I've said, the one that
seems most important to me is the one that uses words to hurt people, to deceive
other people and ourselves, too, to perpetuate blindness towards our shortcomings
and, in that blindness, to be unable to view faults constructively. Words can
be so healing, so comforting and encouraging. They were never meant to be poisons.
And that is why, when I get in my car to go to work and turn the ignition
key, I say a little prayer. Let me not violate Right Speech. Let me keep my mouth
from serving my ego. Let me use it instead to comfort and encourage. Let me have
the sense to walk away from gossip and from the foolish speech of others.
Buddhism's vineyards, there are no sour grapes.