By: Matt Gordon
The other day I had a problem. A conversation didn’t go exactly as I had hoped, and as I ran it back through my head I found the tension points. These moments in the conversation were subtle, unexpected places where decisions were made, where data was collected, where my words were weighed. In hindsight, I could see it; in the moment my eyes were closed. Because my mouth was opened. Though things didn’t go exactly as I had hoped and there may have been nothing I could do about it, I realized, in doing an autopsy on the exchange, that my own mouth had added to my undoing. As is so often the case, my words misfired in unpredictable ways. I didn’t say anything offensive or off-the-cuff; everything I said was truthful and had been measured. Still things unraveled.
Demosthenes was a famous orator who grew up with a noticeable stutter. He practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth to help him build the muscles and focus necessary to overcome his speech impediment. I have no audible impediment, but perhaps his method would spare me verbosity? When questioned, I answer. When those around me are silent, I speak. When a problem arises, I verbally process, trying to spah-spah-speak my way through it.
And never have we had so many outlets to speak. Microphones are everywhere. I can blast social media with my thoughts—complex issues I’ve spent a few minutes thinking about, I try to solve in 140 characters. Even now, I write words that other people will read—amplifying thoughts to unknown masses.
Don’t get me wrong—words matter. I should speak and aim to speak well. Demosthenes would practice oratory in front of a mirror. He’d run himself ragged so he could learn to speak while out of breath. He’d study and read and write, honing his communication skills so not a single syllable escaped the stronghold of his mind. And even with all that, he misspoke.
Ancient Scripture has much to say about restraining our words. Mark Twain is credited with the cliché that it is better to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. But Proverbs was thousands of years ahead of him: “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” This thought is scattered throughout the Bible, but others have chimed in too. Shakespeare, the master of capturing human nature and the squabbles that ensue from “accidental speech,” litters his plays with biblical-sounding admonishment:
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
“Men of few words are the best men.”
Or, perhaps most famously:
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Proverbs. Twain. Shakespeare. All good guides, but perhaps the best place to see the shortcoming of our speech is our own daily lives. My infant puts his foot in his mouth. We forbid our two year old from doing the same, reasoning that he is too old for such tomfoolery. But I wonder when the last day was that my tongue didn’t taste toe, as I fumble about, foot firmly in mouth. I say too much; I use the wrong word; I speak too soon. Filling a room with mines then wondering at a way out.
Throughout Mark, Jesus is hard-pressed by those planting mines for him. They lay trap after trap, waiting for the wrong word to spring death.
Yellow Journalism became a method at the end of the 19th century. It featured competing papers employing more and more sensationalist headlines and stories in order to draw readership. It helped pave the way for “Gotcha Journalism” in which a journalist is peppering a subject with loaded questions, hoping to produce some bit of scandal or sensationalism with which to go to print.
I said this began in the late 19th century, but Jesus might argue that. In Mark 12 we see “reporters” lining up not for truth, but for a story worthy of print. They want a villain, a scapegoat, a fool. And Jesus is their mark. They push and prod and hurl complicated, divisive, loaded questions at Jesus, then lean in, ready to pounce.
Jesus is Jesus though. He gives them little reward for their efforts, either by dismantling their premise, exposing their motives, or refusing to give a direct answer to an indirect line of query. As I watch him navigate this exhausting game of cat-and-mouse, I realize so very clearly an unassuageable fact: I am not Jesus.
Yet like Jesus, there are people near me that want my fall. They await a wayward step, ready to gather up any weapons I drop against me. These weapons are my words. Yet I scatter them about flippantly, tweeting and posting and talking and talking and talking.
The practice of Demosthenes will help me. The lessons of Proverbs. The reminder of Shakespeare. But the poise of Jesus comes not from getting better, but by getting wiser. By realizing my words are not my salvation, so I need not wield them with hurried desperation. I need to think. And listen. And wait. I need to consider the charitableness of my audience, the motives of those tuning in to my voice. “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20). My tongue perks up to offer a counter to that passage, but the weight of insight stays it—pebbles of wisdom.