We all know what heckling is. Whether it comes from those two old men in the balcony or the lady behind the counter who disapproves of your style, heckling is a confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations – such as when someone boldly shouts, “YOU’RE NOT FUNNY!” to the stand-up comic who believes otherwise. Audiences embrace hecklers for the shock value of upstaging those on stage. Performers – not so much.
For the past two weeks, we have talked about childhood in the ideal. For that matter, we often speak of things in their ideal form. As we consider the approach we take into our Mission, it is necessary to keep our eyes and minds on the ideal. Real life may not be there, or even close; but we already live in real life. What good is a Mission unless it aims forward – maybe even, at times, beyond the visible horizon? We may not reach the ideal, but every step in that direction is a better way to live our everyday.
We are born vulnerable and sincere, and then life throws wrenches at us. Our bodies may not cooperate developmentally. Our minds may be ignored, even ridiculed, by social and economic barriers. And, the people around us may not care one bit if we are sincere, vulnerable, curious or joyful.
This sometimes starts at a very young age, but most times, our first encounter with hecklers comes in adolescence. The joy and wonder we have cultivated suddenly becomes our greatest liability. A snarky comment, a snide remark over something we love, or being pushed to the outskirts by those who do not share our interests – all of these are ways that adolescence usurps childhood. Friends can heckle friends, and media messages can heckle entire groups at a time. Comments that are closer to teasing but carry a sting are what we term “heckling,” which are not the same as the focused attacks we know as bullying. Heckling can lead to bullying, yes, but not always. Bullying leaves focused bruises, while heckling wears away at our capacity to trust and callusing our hearts into secrecy.
Whatever age it happens, heckling is the beginning of the end of our
Some of us are very resilient and bounce right along with hecklers, enjoying the give and take and shaking off the sting – maybe not even feeling it. Some of us have no way to tell the difference between heckling and criticism. Many of us find heckling confusing, and we react by putting on a tough face or by changing our outward behavior – denying our true selves, little by little.
Some of us stand up and proclaim our loves no matter what. We can all think of people who do this, typically the self-declared outsiders or the outspoken activists. Two key elements are needed to be those people: Enormous confidence and bold communication skills.
Some of us withdraw into our loves, reticently, pulling the veil over our true selves to avoid the hecklers and thrive as the people we want to be – alone, but true to our selves.
Heckling has the same spiritual effect on people across the board. It files down our confidence and ability to trust both ourselves and others. It then wears away our confidence and ability to trust in God. If others around us throw barbs and mockery our way when we have done nothing but be ourselves… it imprints the message in us that our efforts and our loves are ridiculous. For better or worse, the people around us are the index by which we see how we are received by others. The more people mock us, the more we accumulate a sense of worthlessness. After awhile, it becomes difficult to believe that God could ever find worth in our “ridiculous” ways and loves if ordinary, reasonable people cannot.
Once we collect enough of our hecklers’ frass, even over many years, we gradually become more bitter… angry… and defensive. Why? Because we know that our innocence and loves and ways are not worthless. We are the same person our entire lives, and the child’s-eye view of the confidence we once had is still there, if not buried under responsibility… or suffocating in hecklers’ frass.
How are we to handle hecklers? How can we promote living with child-like wonder and love without exposing hundreds of people to re-experiencing the pain and betrayal of a fresh round of heckling?
Go back to the beginning of this post: Heckling is a confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations. Audience members justify heckling when they feel they are not getting their money’s worth of entertainment. What drives ordinary people to heckle one another in everyday life, where the price of admission is free and there are no scripts to limit expression or variety of opinion?
UNDERSTANDING is one of the pillars of our Mission. Thus, understanding hecklers is key to maintaining caritas without compromising our own integrity.
Hecklers feel cheated. How can we reassure them that there is enough joy for everyone, and that no two people will find exactly as much joy in the same things? How can we promise them that they are okay, even likeable, even if they fail to match our contentment?
By believing this ourselves, first.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta believed it could be shown with a purposeful smile. “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for a smile is the beginning of love. We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” We concur. Giving smiles as reassurance to those who heckle us has a purpose beyond the gesture and can help prevent snark or sarcasm from creeping behind our expression.
It will take practice.
For those of us tempted ourselves to heckle, good counsel is found in St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, chapter three, Revised Standard Catholic Edition.
Whether we are heckling or being heckled, we must not neglect the last line of our excerpt from St. Paul: “Do not look on them [or, ourselves] as enemies, but warn them [or, be warned] as brethren.”
Brethren. Children. Children of God.
On the same human journey, together.
Pray: Dear Father, help me to see with Your eyes – the hecklers in my life, and the times I have been tempted to heckle. Help me to believe that, as Your children, we are all still learning… and still making missteps along with strides forward… and working toward the same goal together.
Contemplate: Ponder our main idea, that heckling is an confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations.
Relate: Listen carefully this week for heckling in our everyday interactions. Is it part of the landscape? How easily do we notice heckling?
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak