“It really makes me sad to see you speak so harshly to yourself.”
I looked at his face, tender with concern. Harshly to myself? What had I said?
“I pray I will know when to speak and when to shut my mouth.”
It was, on the surface, a genuine concern to only say what is helpful. To not speak in unhelpful or hurtful ways. To carefully choose my battles and determine which hills to die on, then speak with the right attitude and in the right tone of voice. Because we know that it’s not so much what you say but how you say it that leaves the listener remembering how you made them feel. For goodness sake, I even pray about this sort of thing. And I sometimes decide not to speak when I listen to the still, small voice which cautions me to be still.
I had said the first part in a normal voice: “I pray I will know when to speak.” Speak up for those who have no voice. Speak peace into a troubled heart. Speak encouragement for the weak one. Speak up when I have been wronged. I’m still learning how to do that last one without being a prickly pear.
But when to shut my mouth? Ah, that I said with a snarl and a curled lip. A self-flagellation for every time I spoke out of turn, spoke too loud, spoke unkindly, hurt someone, accused someone, berated someone.
It takes me right back to Grade Eight science class when Bruce and Gerry gave me an unflattering nickname: Meramac Cavern Mouth. They were my friends, we sang together. I liked them. We teased each other. But I was loud and they poked me for it, choosing the largest cave in the state as my namesake.
Yes, I was loud in Junior High. I was obnoxious. I was funny. I was busy. I was a singer. I was confident. I was sometimes insecure and I was trying to find my place in the world, just having experienced my first kiss.
That was awkward and gross. I didn’t know what to do with that icky feeling. So I redirected it in anger against the boy who tried it and to my best friend and her boyfriend who goaded us into it. Sitting on the cold floor of her parents’ garage, we two couples, all the early side of 14 years old, decided to explore kissing. And it was a bomb. I was embarrassed. Was something wrong with me? Was it him? Neither one of us knew how. I was disappointed that I’d chosen poorly and I could never get “my first kiss” back. It was gone and now it would forever be engraved in history as a bad mistake I made with a pudgy Grade Seven boy.
What followed was my first experience with really hurting someone with my words. I broke up with the boy and decided I didn’t want to be friends with my best friend any more. I made unkind remarks about her to others at school. The vitriol went on until one of the teachers called me aside to say, “I know your brother (a teacher in Grade Six) and I know your family and I know they didn’t raise you to act like this. You are being a bully and it needs to stop.”
I did stop. I was embarrassed that someone had to take me aside like that, yet I was grateful because I knew he was right.
“The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry, and a wise friend’s timely reprimand is like a gold ring slipped on your finger. Patient persistence pierces through indifference; gentle speech breaks down rigid defenses.” Proverbs 25:11-12,15 (MSG)
My friend and I made up but it was always different after that. We had both been wounded and my words had left scars on us both.
The awkward, gross, icky feeling of Grade Eight surfaces every time I see that look in another person’s eyes: I’ve hurt them. I kick myself over and over for speaking at the wrong time or in the wrong way, even if what I said was valid. They couldn’t receive it because my timing or tone of voice was offensive.
As time passes, as I mature, I have earned a measure of success and respect for how I speak and what I write. But as many writers do, I write very carefully, wrestling long and hard over anything I put in print: to say it right, to say it well, to say it clearly. It can take an entire morning to write and publish one blog post. And I anguish over emails, writing and re-writing paragraphs to minimize any possibility of misinterpretation and still, it is sometimes misunderstood, the reader misses the point or fixates on one ill-chosen phrase.
I have no one to blame but myself.
Or so I thought.
In sober second thought, my rational mind can logically deduce that others are also responsible for their reactions. They hear what I have to say through their own background experience and emotional filters. They give different value, meaning and weight to my words than what I intended.
When another is offended, I can sometimes understand in retrospect how it hurt them, if they let me know. More often they don’t say anything. They just fade away. Not many people confront me about my words. Not many people confront anyone. It seems confrontation is avoided at all costs by a majority of us.
When that unsettled feeling rises, that subtle alienation after I say something intense, passionate or strong, I go away and analyze it. Replay the full conversation, maybe the entire event in my head more than once, guess at how it might have been interpreted (how impossible is that, since I’m trying to understand someone else’s filters through my own).
I know I am not alone in this practice. You do it too, perhaps?
So back to the original remark that started this all off. When I pray I want to know when to keep my mouth shut, I’m thinking of all that has come before. All the ways I’ve caused pain to the heart of another. That overbearing burden of being a person who so often wounds another, that somehow I should be able to not do that.
I should be perfect.
Or at least, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
So I turn on myself. “Keep your mouth shut!” my inner critic snarls.
And the one who loves me best, who sees me at my worst, who has promised to love and cherish me until death parts us, tells me how sad he is to see that venom turned inward.
This is a shining moment in love, in marriage: the mirror held up by a loving hand to help me see clearly where I am self-cutting. The one who sees my heart, knows my life and moves to restrain my hand from the mea culpa.
“It is not only what you say but, more importantly, how you say it.”
Especially when you are saying it to yourself. Self-compassion is not selfishness. It is what makes it possible for us to live whole and compassionate in all our other relationships.
He goes on, “Ask yourself how you would speak to another person, and speak to yourself in that same courteous way.”
Words can heal and words can kill. Words wound and words give life. So, I will continue to pray about when to speak and when to be silent. Because silence is not always golden. Sometimes silence means consent or cowardice. In that case, speaking graciously is the most loving way to live in community with one another.
I’m so glad for the way another spoke healing words to me.
Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.
Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.
Ephesians 4:29-32 MSG