speech

How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged

How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be angry.

I was struck by the similarity between the quote in the graphic above and something the Buddha’s recorded as having said:

Whoever doesn’t flare up at someone who’s angry wins a battle hard to win.

It’s also very reminiscent of these verses in the Dhammapada:

133.Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

134. If, like a broken gong, you silence yourself, you have approached Nibbana, for vindictiveness is no longer in you.

I was a bit surprised, though, to see a comment made by the person who shared the graphic:

I love this one: it usually irks the attacker even more.

Remaining silent in order to irk someone isn’t a very noble motive.

Taking pleasure in someone else getting angry is, from a Buddhist point of view, unskillful. It’s just a subtle form of aggression. Our desire should always be to reduce the amount of suffering our actions cause.

If we “irk” someone, they then go away in a state of resentment, which causes them to suffer. And out of their suffering they’ll likely cause suffering for others as well.

Buddhism encourages us to practice compassion. We should have a concern for the well-being and happiness of ourselves, the person who is trying to make us mad, and all other beings who might be affected.

By remaining silent instead of getting into an argument, we avoid creating unnecessary conflict. In that way there’s less suffering. The other person might get mad in the short term even if we’re not intending to provoke them, but in the long-term they’ll benefit because you’ve given them less to be resentful about. You might even have modeled compassionate non-reactivity for them.

You might experience discomfort in the short term because part of you really wants to fight back, but in the long term you’ll have less to regret and your emotional state will be more peaceful.

The Buddha alluded to the difficulty of not responding harshly to harshness when he said,

Knowing that the other man is angry,
He mindfully maintains his peace
And endures the anger of both,
His own, as well as of the other

It’s better to endure your own anger than to inflict it on someone else. It’ll be painful, but it’ll pass.

With training, we can even learn not to be angry:

People out of control stab with words,
When they hear a harsh word spoken,
a mendicant should endure with no anger in heart.

Of course it’s not necessary to remain silent in order to respond compassionately to another person’s aggression. Responding with words that express overt kindness and compassion is another way of “not flaring up.” That’s even more beautiful than remaining silent.

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The power of appreciative words: “Mishan’s Garden,” by James Vollbracht & Janet Brooke

mishan's garden

“The greatest gift you can ever give another is to see what is best and unique about them.”

This morning I stumbled downstairs, bleary-eyed, having got home late after teaching a class the night before. My six-year-old daughter gave me a running hug and a huge smile. She’s naturally affectionate, but I suspect there was an ulterior motive, because a few seconds later she came running back to me with Mishan’s Garden in her hands, asking that I read it to her. And so, I did.

Mishan is the titular heroine, a young girl who lives in The Village Above the White Clouds, where her father is the innkeeper. Misha is a special girl, whose birth was accompanied by the song of a white bird — a song so sweet it seemed to unite heaven and earth.

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The land around The Village Above the White Clouds is too cold and barren for anything to grow. The barrenness is metaphorical, since people there say it is not a place where people belong. But Mishan’s father predicts that she will cultivate a beautiful garden of hopes and dreams.

Mishan dutifully plants seeds in the cold, infertile soil, but those are not the seeds that are to grow. Instead, it is the seeds of goodness in the villagers’ hearts that Mishan is to cultivate, watering them with her kind and appreciative words.

When an argument breaks out in the inn, Mishan asks a worn-out old soldier to intervene and prevent violence. He says he’s too old and weak, but Mishan convinces him that he still has strength, like an old tree whose boughs offer shelter. And so the old soldier asserts himself and puts a stop to the fight.

She tells an arrogant and rich merchant that he is like the village stream, bringing life to all who are in need. Her kind words inspire him to be generous, and we see him giving alms to a beggar.

She offers kind words to the village children, whom she compares to wild flowers, and to the young girls, whose talk about the beauty of others perfumes the air like the scent of lilac flowers.

Title: Mishan’s Garden
Author: James Vollbracht (Illus. Janet Brooke)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 978-1-61429-112-1
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Lastly, she tells a white lie to an angry woodcutter who has come to the inn looking for his son, whom he regards as a lazy good-for-nothing. She praises the woodcutter’s wisdom in coming to the inn, saying that it is wise to know that there is a time to work and a time to rest and dream, like the vine that grows by day and bathes in the moonlight by night. The woodcutter not only accepts his son’s need to rest, but asks him what his dreams are.

But Mishan is still waiting for her garden to grow. And distraught that her seeds have not germinated, she becomes seriously ill. But although her literal garden has failed to blossom, around her kindness is blooming in every heart, and the villagers run to help her. The birdsong so beautiful that it seemed to unite heaven and earth is heard once again, and the villagers see Mishan’s garden, filled with beautiful flowers, vines, bushes, and trees.

When people think of the village now, they think of it as a special place where everyone not only belongs, but where every person has a “special place and their own special dreams.” And those who come to the village in search of their dreams hear the song of the white bird, and feel encouraged to keep on with their searches.

My daughter loved the book, and I enjoyed reading it to her. The story is charming, and open to many interpretations. Does Mishan die toward the end? Is the flourishing garden we see her vision of heaven? Why does she really become ill? Is it because she lied to the woodcutter? Does the white bird’s appearance at Mishan’s birth and possible death suggest that Mishan is some kind of bodhisattva — a being reborn in order to help others? I rather like all the ambiguity, which allows for much discussion and exploration with children.

Janet Brookes’ watercolor (?) illustrations are very beautiful, simple, and give a good sense of a non-specific Himalayan culture and landscape, with bare craggy mountains and fluttering prayer flags. I especially enjoyed the sensitivity and love expressed in the faces of Mishan and her father.

James Vollbracht’s storytelling is poetic, evocative, and beautifully illustrates the power of appreciative speech.

Mishan’s Garden is 30 pages long, and is the perfect length for a story at bedtime — or for reading before breakfast!

As well as being a regular book review, this post is one of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Apology as a spiritual practice

Yesterday I lost my temper with my daughter and yelled at her. I even snatched out of her hands the baby monitor that she and her brother had been using to make a noise with.

I’m not proud of losing my temper. In fact I’m ashamed when that kind of thing happens.

It’s true that I’d asked her several times to stop, but that’s still no excuse.

It didn’t help either that I’d been trying to get a little work done in the living room and was trying hard to stay focused on a message I was writing. But that’s no excuse either.

I messed up. I communicated in an unskillful way and shocked and distressed my little girl.

These things are going to happen, though, so I don’t beat myself up about them. Saying I feel ashamed doesn’t mean I think I’m a terrible person, but simply that I recognize that my action was wrong. I feel ashamed, not guilty. Unfortunately, things like this are going to happen again, though. That’s just how things are.

What I did get right, I think, was that I apologized swiftly. That’s something I try to do. When I have my little outbursts they take me over for just a split second, usually, but then what seems to happen is that I return almost at once to a more ethical perspective. And when I’ve hurt someone, especially my kids, I let them know that I regret my actions. Often the apology comes mere moments after the thing I’m apologizing for, as it did this time. And my daughter was instantly fine, and harmony was restored.

This incident was fresh in my mind when I came across a passage in an article by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on lovingkindness (or as he prefers to call it, goodwill). I’m reproducing it here, reformatted to help bring out more clearly the points he makes.

As for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the harm, so if an apology is appropriate, you apologize. In any case, you resolve not to repeat the harmful action again. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill in all directions.

This accomplishes several things.

  • It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t — in defense of your self-image — revert to the sort of denial that refuses to admit that any harm was done.
  • It strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm.
  • And it forces you to examine your actions to see their actual effect: If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to abandon them before they cause further harm.

In other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded, floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop this attitude to begin with: to make sure that it truly animates our thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness harmless for all.

I see apology as being a reorientation of our being toward the good. Our minds and selves are modular: some parts of us see the way to happiness as lying in selfishness and aggression, while other parts of us see the path to happiness as lying in mindfulness and compassion. When the unskillful takes hold of us, it’s crucial to re-establish as quickly as possible that this was a deviation, and to redirect ourselves toward awakening. When we try to justify what we’ve done, by rationalizing or weaseling our way out of admitting fault, we actually strengthen the unskillful within us, and end up perpetuating our own and others’ suffering.

Another way to deal with our unskillful actions is confession. Confession’s what I’m doing here, in part. When we confess we’re being honest about what we’ve done, so that we can own it and move on.

When I first did formal confession, I was terrified that the people I was confessing to (we did it in a group) would stop liking me if they knew what I was “really” like. But in fact, I discovered that they loved me more for having been honest with them. In confessing we’re not looking for forgiveness, just to have what we’ve done out in the open, rather than festering inside us. I don’t need you to forgive me; I just need you there to hear me.

The power of confession, like that of apology, lies in re-establishing our connection with who we truly want to be. It gives the reins of our being back to the wiser, kinder, and more honest parts of ourselves.

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Five steps to letting go of quarreling

angry cat

It’s one thing to stick up for yourself and others. But it’s a different matter to get caught up in wrangles, contentiousness, squabbles — in a word: quarrels.

Similarly, it’s one thing to disagree with someone, even to the point of arguing – but it’s a different matter to get so caught up in your position that you lose sight of the bigger picture, including your relationship with the other person. Then you’re quarreling.

You know you’re quarreling when you find yourself getting irritated, especially with that sticky feeling that you’re just not gonna quit until you’ve won.

Quarrels happen both out in the open, between people, and inside the mind, like when you make a case in your head about another person or keep revisiting an argument to make your point more forcefully. We quarrel most with family and friends – imagine that! – but also with people on TV, or politicians and groups we don’t like. We can even quarrel with conditions in life (such as an illness or tight money) or with physical objects, like a sticky drawer slammed shut in anger.

However they happen, quarrels are stressful, activating the ancient fight-or-flight machinery in your brain and body: a bit of this won’t harm you, but a regular diet of quarreling is not good for your long-term physical and mental health.

Plus it eats away like acid on a relationship. For example, I was in a serious relationship in my mid-twenties that was headed for marriage, but our regular quarrels finally so scorched the earth in our hearts that no love could grow there for each other.

This week, try not to quarrel with anyone or anything.

How?

  1. Be mindful of what quarreling feels like, in your body, emotions, and thoughts. For example, be aware of that sense of revving up, pushing against, being right, and driving your view home that is so characteristic of quarreling. Ask yourself: Does this feel good? Is this good for me?
  2. Observe the impact of quarreling in relationships, whether you’re doing it or others are (including on the world stage). Ask yourself: Are the results good? What would my relationships be like if I did not quarrel in them?
  3. If you sense yourself warming up to a quarrel, step back, slow down, don’t do it. Try a different approach: Say only what truly needs saying; stay calm and contained, without trying to persuade the other person; don’t take any bait. If it comes to this, let the other person, not you, look over-heated and argumentative.
  4. Much of the time, you’ll realize that nothing needs to be said at all: you just don’t have to resist the other person. His or her words can pass on by like a gust of air swirling some leaves along its way. You don’t have to be contentious. Your silence does not equal agreement. Nor does it mean that the other person has won the point – and even if he or she has, would that actually matter so much in a week – or year – or so?
  5. If you do get caught up in a quarrel, as soon as you realize that’s happened, back out of it. A good first step is to get quieter. Think about what really matters in the interaction – like saying what you are going to do in the future, or finding out some key fact – and then zero in on that thing, whatever it is. Maybe acknowledge to the other person that you’ve realized you’ve gotten into a kind of argument here, but that’s not what you really want to do. If that person tries to keep up the fight, you don’t have to. It takes two to quarrel, and only one to stop it. Then when the time is right, as you can, try to repair the damage of the quarrel.

Overall, explore the sense of being at peace with the world, without a quarrel with anyone.

(The feeling of this reminds me of a saying from my wife’s childhood, which should be adapted to one’s own situation: Be a friend to all, and a sister to every Girl Scout!)

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The five principles of wise communication

microphone

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Ah, not really.

Often it’s words – and the tone that comes with them – that actually do the most damage. Just think back on some of the things that have been said to you over the years – especially those said with criticism, derision, shaming, anger, rejection, or scorn – and the impacts they’ve had on your feelings, hopes and ambitions, and sense of yourself.

Words can hurt since the emotional pain networks in your brain overlap with physical pain networks. (The effects of this intertwining go both ways. For example, studies have shown that receiving social support reduces the perceived intensity of physical pain, and – remarkably – that giving people Tylenol reduced the unpleasantness of social rejection.)

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Besides their momentary effects, these hurts can linger – even for a lifetime. The residues of hurtful words sift down into emotional memory to cast long shadows over the inner landscape of your mind.

Plus they can alter a relationship forever. Just think about the ripple effects of things said between parents and children, from one sibling to another, or among in-laws. Or between friends. For example, a good buddy once castigated me morally when we disagreed politically. We tried to talk it through, but the fact that he showed he could indeed go to that place led me to take a step a back; we’re still friends, but our relationship is smaller now since I steer clear of some major subjects.

So do what you can to protect yourself from hurtful words from others. Prevent them in the first place, if possible, by “talking about talking” with others (perhaps share the guidelines below). If that doesn’t work, try to see the underlying pain and needs that could have triggered them to “let ‘er rip,” put their words in perspective, turn toward resources in yourself and in your true friends, and shift the size or nature of the relationship if that’s appropriate (and possible).

And on your own side of the street – my subject in this JOT, because you have much more influence over yourself than you have over others – speak wisely.

How?

I’ve gotten a great deal of personal value from six guidelines offered 2500 years ago by the Buddha; you’ll recognize their essence – sometimes expressed in the same words – in other traditions or philosophies.

From this perspective, wise speech always has five characteristics. It is:

  • Well-intended – Comes from goodwill, not ill will; constructive; aimed to build up, not tear down
  • True – Not overstated, taken out of context, or blown-up out of proportion
  • Beneficial – Helps things get better, not worse (even if it takes a while)
  • Timely – Not driven by impulsivity; rests on a foundation that creates a good chance of it being truly heard
  • Not harsh – It could be firm, pointed, or intense; it could confront mistreatment or injustice; anger could be acknowledged; but it is not prosecutorial, nasty, inflammatory, dismissive, disdainful, or snarky.

And if possible, it is:

  • Wanted by the other person – If they don’t want to hear it, you may just not need to say it; but there will be other cases when you need to speak for yourself whether the other person likes it or not – and then it’s more likely to go well if you follow the first five guidelines.

Of course, there is a place for talking loosely with others when it’s comfortable to do so. And realistically, in the first moments of an argument, sometimes people stray out of bounds.

But in important, tricky, or delicate interactions – or as soon as realize you’ve gone over the line – then it’s time to communicate with care, and with wisdom. The six guidelines do not guarantee that the other person will respond the way you want. But they will raise the odds of a good outcome, plus you will know in your heart that you stayed in control of yourself, had good intentions, and have nothing to feel guilty about later.

Reflect on the six guidelines as you consider how to approach an important conversation. Then, be natural: if you simply speak from your heart, have good intentions, and keep returning to the truth as you know it, it is hard not to speak wisely! If things get heated, stay grounded in wise speech; be clear that how you speak your own responsibility, no matter what the other person does. If you stray from the guidelines, acknowledge that to yourself, and perhaps to the other person.

With time and a little practice, you will find yourself “speaking wisely” without consciously thinking about it. You might be amazed at the powerful, assertive ways you can communicate within the frame of the six guidelines; consider the well-known examples of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And – for a little bonus here – how about practicing wise speech in the way you talk to yourself?!

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“Whatever is well said is the word of the Buddha.” Maybe not.

Buddha in the style of Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope poster

As well as keeping things going at Wildmind, I run a site called “Fake Buddha Quotes,” where I explore some of the sayings misattributed to the Buddha on Facebook, Twitter, quotes sites, and even in books, and attempt to track down their original source. It’s fun to do.

From time to time I receive critical messages from people, claiming that the Buddha was too spiritual to bother about things like being misquoted, or having words put in his mouth. How they know this, I don’t know. Perhaps they have some kind of mystical communion with deceased enlightened beings.

Not having such powers, I have to read the Buddhist scriptures for clues to his attitude. There I find the Buddha, at times, facing people who say “I heard you said such-and-such,” and when that information is incorrect I see him putting them straight, in no uncertain terms. But there’s also a passage in the Digha Nikaya where the Buddha explicitly talks about being misquoted. (Thanks to Arjuna Ranatunga for reminding me of this sutta).

There the Buddha runs through various scenarios where one might hear that the Buddha is reported to have said something or other. What’s our response meant to be?

“Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.” (Emphasis added.)

That’s what the Fake Buddha Quotes blog is about, although generally I try to find where non-Buddhist quotes have originated and I also post genuine Buddha quotes — or at least things that the Buddha’s canonically said to have said. Being human, I sometimes fall into scorn. I’m working on it, though.

But there you have it above. We’re supposed to think about whether Buddha quotes are genuine. And we’re supposed to “reject” them if they’re not. (I presume that means reject them as genuine, rather than reject their message. Sometimes Fake Buddha Quotes contain inspiring and true messages — it just so happens that the Buddha didn’t say them.)

But there’s another sutta that Arjuna reminded me of, which comes not from the Buddha but from his disciple, Uttara. That sutta contains this oft-quoted saying:

“…whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One.”

This would seem to suggest that if the Buddha’s quoted as having said something, then as long as the quote is “well-said” we should accept it as his word. This is a rather odd idea, on the face of it. It’s hard to imagine someone as ethical as the Buddha being prepared to take the credit for others’ bons mots. It also contradicts what we’ve just read. Or it seems to.

Take a look at the context of the sutta, though. Uttara is in a conversation with Sakka, the king of the devas (or gods). As an aside, what does this mean? I tend to assume that such conversations are the recordings of inner dialog. In this case Uttara would have been musing on the nature of authenticity. He’s just given a teaching, and a note (perhaps of doubt) creeps into his mind: “Whose teaching is this, mine or the Buddha’s?” And an answer comes to him: It’s basically the Buddha’s teaching; I just go to the grain pile and carry away basketfuls of Dhamma as I need them. I’d suggest reading the following passage in that light.

“But is this Ven. Uttara’s own extemporaneous invention, or is it the saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One?”

“Very well, then, deva-king, I will give you an analogy, for there are cases where it’s through an analogy that observant people can understand the meaning of what is being said. Suppose that not far from a village or town there was a great pile of grain, from which a great crowd of people were carrying away grain on their bodies, on their heads, in their laps, or in their cupped hands. If someone were to approach that great crowd of people and ask them, ‘From where are you carrying away grain?’ answering in what way would that great crowd of people answer so as to be answering rightly?”

“Venerable sir, they would answer, ‘We are carrying it from that great pile of grain,’ so as to be answering rightly.”

“In the same way, deva-king, whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One. Adopting it again & again from there do we & others speak.”

Or maybe you believe in gods.

But it’s obvious from the context that what is “well said” refers to that which is taken from the grain pile of the Buddha’s teaching. It seems likely that Uttara was actually saying “whatever I have said that is well said is the word of the Buddha.” This is not unlike a common line that is found in book acknowledgements, along the lines, “Whatever is of value here comes from my teachers; the errors are all my own.” Uttara was not saying that if Voltaire or Douglas Adams or Virginia Wolfe happens to say something neat it can be co-opted as Buddha-vacana — the utterance of the Buddha. So ultimately Uttara’s utterance doesn’t contradict the Buddha’s teaching that we should scrutinize supposed Buddha quotes and reject those that aren’t genuine.

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Drop the tart tone

Tone matters.

I remember times I felt frazzled or aggravated and then said something with an edge to it that just wasn’t necessary or useful. Sometimes it was the words themselves: such as absolutes like “never” or always,” or over-the-top phrases like “you’re such a flake” or “that was stupid.” More often it was the intonation in my voice, a harsh vibe or look, interrupting, or a certain intensity in my body. However I did it, the people on the receiving end usually looked like they’d just sucked a lemon. This is what I mean by tart tone.

People are more sensitive to tone than to the explicit content of spoken or written language. To paraphrase the poet Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. And we are particularly reactive to negative tone.

Consequently, tart tone hurts others. This is bad enough, but it also often triggers others to react in ways that harm you and others.

On the other hand, paying attention to tone puts you more in touch with yourself, because you have to be aware of what’s building inside – which also promotes mindfulness and builds up its neural substrates. Containing negative tone prompts you to open to and deal with any underlying stress, hurt, or anger. It reduces the chance that the other person will avoid dealing with what you say by shifting attention to how you say it. Cleaning up your style of expression puts you in a stronger position to ask people to do the same, or to act better toward you in other ways.

As the Buddha said long ago, “Getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.” Much the same could be said about throwing tart tone.

How do we change our tone?

Shifting your tone doesn’t mean becoming sugary, saccharine, or phony. Nor does it mean walking on eggshells, becoming a doormat, or muzzling yourself. Actually, when people shift away from being snippy, curt, snarky, derisive, or contentious, they usually become stronger communicators. They’re now more grounded, more dignified when they bring up something. They haven’t squandered interpersonal capital on the short-term gratifications of harsh tone.

Sometimes people are tart with each other in playful ways, and that’s OK. But keep watching to see how it’s landing on the other person.

Be mindful of what’s called “priming”: feeling already mistreated or annoyed irritated – or already in a critical frame of mind. Little things can land on this priming like a match on a pile of firecrackers, setting them off. Maybe simply take a break (e.g., bathroom, meal, shower, run, gardening, TV) to clear away some or all of the priming. And or try to deal with hurt, anger, or stress in a straightforward way (if possible), rather than blowing off steam with your tone.

Then, if you do in fact get triggered, notice what comes up to say. If it’s critical, acerbic, cutting, etc., then slow down, say nothing, or say something truly useful. Watch those eye rolls or the sharp sigh that means “Duh-oh, that was kind of dumb” (my wife has called me on both of these). Give a little thought to your choice of words: could there be a way to say what you want to say without pouring gasoline on the fire? Look for words that are accurate, constructive, self-respecting, and get to the heart of the matter. Be especially careful with an email; once you push the “send” button, there is no getting it back, and the receiver can read your message over and over again, plus share it with others.

If you do slip, clean it up as soon as possible – which could be a minute after you say it. Sometimes it works to explain – not justify or defend – the underlying reasons for your tart tone (e.g., you’re fried and hungry and it’s been a tough day) to put it in context. Take responsibility for your tone and its impacts, and recommit to a clearer, cleaner, more direct way of expressing yourself.

At the end of an interaction, you may not get the result you want from the other person – but you can get the result of self-respect and feeling that you did the best you could.

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