The Weight of Things Said and Unsaid

I’ve never had a problem talking.  When I was still in dresses and pigtails I remember my parents often saying, “Corrie, you need to think before you speak.”  I was the brunette chatterbox that grew into an extreme extrovert..  Sometimes the need to speak was unstoppable.  I would see other human beings and words started snapping off my tongue like PopRocks.

The gift of gab as some call it, is not always a bad thing.  My love for people and my friendliness with words has enabled me to get up on stages and podiums and act, sing, give speeches, deliver presentations, preach sermons and lead prayer in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people.  I also have the ability to put most people at ease and use words to calm down angry people.   I’ve learned that the spoken word can be a tool of healing, inspiration and entertainment.

But as a child, listening first, holding my tongue or keeping secrets – those things were a supreme struggle for me.  I learned the hard way that there is a risk in saying too much.

I remember when I got my first perm in sixth grade.  My mother dropped me off at the salon for a few hours while she went to run errands.  When she returned she discovered that I hadn’t stopped talking since she left (no surprise there) and along the way I divulged some sensitive family information (oops).  Though my words didn’t become the next day’s Tattler headlines, I sensed my mother’s discomfort and disappointment.

It is indeed difficult to tame the wild tongue, especially when it’s attached to someone too immature to sense the weight of things better left unsaid.

Thankfully I’ve learned to discipline, if not my thoughts, then at least the ones I speak aloud – though not without a few missteps as an adult.  Here’s a confession – one of the college students that worked for me, alias Becca, accused me of gossiping about her.  This is the scenario.  When Becca and I were meeting one on one she shared a concern about her mother’s declining health.  I later had lunch with another student who was a good friend of Becca’s and who asked how she was doing.  I told this student about Becca’s mother’s latest struggle and we talked about our mutual concern and brainstormed how we might support our friend.  To Becca, the sting of me sharing about her mother lessened when she heard the context, but only lessened.  It still hurt her to know I talked about her to someone else without her permission.  I didn’t realize that she wasn’t ready to share about her mother with others, even though she shared openly with me.

The moral here – it wasn’t my story to tell.  Holding on to this wisdom is a priceless safeguard in relationships, especially for people like me (pastors and counselors) who regularly hear confessions and confidential information.

It’s no secret that as much as words can heal and inspire, they also have the terrible ability to wound and destroy.  Another, less-advertised danger – words can destroy faster than they can heal.  Just ask any person who has been beaten with well-chosen words if their trust and self-confidence are easily restored.

It’s a life’s work for someone whose been told they are ugly or worthless or no better than a #%#$, to believe the simple truth when they hear it – that they are lovely, significant, a person to be cherished.  I couldn’t keep track of the number of people who I have counseled whose self-esteem imploded and disintegrated (picture the twin towers) because of a single sentence spoken by someone they love.  When you’ve been smashed and torn by words, believing the truth is a difficult matter of wading out of the sludge of lies and depravation and climbing up against the weight of self-loathing and doubt, and pushing through dark shadows of fear and uncertainty.

My dear friend Charity is dear because when she hears someone say something untrue about themselves she’ll interrupt them, look them straight in the eye and say vehemently, “That is a lie from the pit!”  It’s both startling and refreshing.

But when words have smacked us down and senseless, sometimes all I can think is – oh how deep the pit!

If words are such powerful tools to both create and destroy, we should use them with care and caution.  The lessons that I’ve learned about the power of words keeps me sensitized to things like the “F-word”.  I’ll never say it.  For me that word (which people say as casually and often as they do the word ahmazing) is irrevocably linked to power over and against women, to physical violence and to rape.  With this single word physical assault and verbal abuse pummel a syncopated rhythm.  Why would I use this word, ever?

All of this is really a plea for kindness and love in the way we interact with ourselves, others and the world.  To learn together to think before we speak.  To consider the weight, risks and cost of our words.  To constantly mature into people who are able to discern when to speak and when to remain silent, how to use words that create and refrain from those that destroy.  To know what to post on Facebook and what to save for a private conversation with a true friend.

One thing is always true about using words wisely – it’s never easy.  All the more reason to make space for silence and loooong pauses.


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