Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Jeeves Didn't Say

Intrigued by the giggles, I began, ineffectively, to try to read over my wife’s shoulder as she plowed her way through The World of Jeeves. Ultimately I asked that she read passages aloud that she felt might be of mutual interest and entertainment; and happily, she complied. Fans of both Wodehouse and Stephen Fry, we were both soon Googling (and giggling) YouTube for clips of Wooster and Jeeves, Fry and Hugh Laurie’s (aka, House) wonderful adaptation of Wodehouse’s extended lampooning of this ‘English gentleman’ – and with him, the British aristocracy. One of the ‘idle rich’, Bertie Wooster is regularly in need of rescuing by Jeeves, his capable and attentive valet. The only cost it would seem is the latter’s quietly understated, but acerbic commentary on his employer’s naïve, self-absorbed, and often witless behaviour – to which Bertie is typically quite oblivious.

Having settled on ‘Minnie the Moocher’, we listened as Bertie plunked out a piano rendition of the Cab Calloway tune, all the while soliciting comment – and the occasional assist or explanation – from Jeeves. The skit includes Bertie’s observation on the wittiness of the lyric, inviting Jeeves’ opinion. “Now that is clever, Jeeves!” “What is, sir?” “Well, don’t you see: ‘Sweden’ rhyming with ‘needin’”; and Jeeves’ terse but very complete retort: “Almost, sir”. ( for those who might want to see the original.)

Now Jeeves in his self-effacing style would hardly have considered himself a model of the Buddhist way. But contained in variations of that oft repeated dialogue between Bertie and Jeeves, are all the essential elements of a simple and effective means of transferring Metta mindfulness, Loving-kindness into the rest of our day as we struggle to find ways to extend our 30-minute sit to the other 23 ½ hours: Right Speech.

One the rudiments of the ‘eight-fold path’, right speech is variously seen as communicating according to three or four simple ‘rules’ or principles. Is what I am about to say truthful? Is it helpful? And is it timely? After listening to the Fry-Laurie skit, I was tempted to add a fourth: is it succinct? (On doing a bit of research, I later found a quote attributed to the Buddha that seems to support the latter’s inclusion: “Better than a meaningless story of 1000 words, is a single word of deep meaning which, when heard, produces peace”.)

Jack Kornfield tells the story of attempting to act strictly by the parameters of right speech for a day in his life: not speaking unless what he was about to say met all the criteria listed above. If one or more ‘tests’ were failed, he didn’t speak – or at least reworded with more thought / compassion what he was about to say. Remarkably, although perhaps not so surprising after all, the volume of communication dropped by some two-thirds. He was simply more quiet.

Truthfulness is a particularly tricky one. I suspect most of us, under ‘normal’ circumstances, don’t likely lie all that much. But what about sarcasm / irony: “The expression of one's meaning using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous effect”. Right speech doesn’t preclude expressing the thought – only asks that it be spoken in a direct and clear (versus inverted, ‘backwards’) fashion. Gossip anyone – ‘second hand stories’, the provenance of which is much less important to us than the juicy details. Try, for a day – or an hour – avoiding commenting on anyone not present in the room with you. Joe Goldstein maintains that this simple exercise compels you, ever so briefly, to abstain from analyzing, judging, evaluating; and to raise your awareness of how much of our communication is devoted to ‘absentee subjects’ (targets?). Much easier to talk about the person not present. Or the exaggerated tale, embellished just that little bit for effect, emphasis – no harm in that, right?

Washing our comments through the filter of helpfulness can be equally challenging. I’ve always wondered about the vaguely oxymoronic feel to ‘constructive criticism’. (Who hasn’t heard the old knock: ‘military intelligence’?) If I’m being constructive, being critical must be somehow OK. If it’s for ‘someone’s own good’, it’s quite acceptable to be both ‘truthful’ and (oh yeah) just a bit nasty in the bargain. Right speech would compel us to vet our communication not only through the ‘is it good for them’ criterion; but equally through the empathic, compassionate, positive ‘sieve’ as well. Get all those spiteful lumps out, before the thought flows trippingly off one’s tongue.

And timeliness. When a ‘gem’ is shared may be the difference between a thought heard and a thought ignored or even resented. Perhaps pointing out that the weather is finally warming to one’s neighbour, thrilled with the deal that he’s just made for a snow blower, is an observation a bit badly timed.

And so, as Jeeves moves gracefully about the flat, fluffing pillows and shifting floral arrangements, he speaks when invited to do so, with clarity and frankness (“You know Jeeves, I could do better justice to this song – if I knew what the words meant”, opines Bertie; “Oh, I doubt that sir”, from Jeeves); with every intention of easing his employer’s confusion, frustration, and ignorance – without ever once disturbing a self-satisfied feather. Right speech to be sure.

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