Saturday, November 22, 2008

Discretion and Discussion

A time to be silent and a time to speak…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.7

A Proverbial Problem

Why all the proverbs about keeping thoughts to ourselves? They're so well known, a parlor game could be built around them. Two teams, two pads, and 30 seconds—go! “Loose lips sink ships.” “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” “Discretion is the better part of valor.” “Don’t spill the beans.” “Think before you speak.” “Still waters run deep.” “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” “Don’t talk out of school.” And a personal favorite, “Take something to your grave!”

With all these mottos on the loose, one might expect far less loose talk. But, oh my, how we love to talk! We tell on us, each other, friends and neighbors, and even people we’ll never know—celebrities and acquaintances twice removed and random strangers whose compulsive talk invites us to repeat what we overhear. We buy magazines and surf Websites for more to talk about. We watch mean-spirited TV attorneys speculate wildly about alleged criminals and victims. In today’s chatterbox culture, anyone is fair game and loose talk is only offensive if we’re the subjects. That alone should teach us to mind what we say. But we don’t quite connect being talked about and talking about others. Wags coin proverbs about talking too much because too much talk is—literally—a proverbial problem.

Listeners First

According to Solomon, there are times for discretion and times for discussion. As much as what we say, when we say it reveals more about us than those we talk about. Our comments float into the ether, leaving impressions behind: Mary’s a gossip. Martin’s a braggart. Meg’s a critic. Ryan exaggerates. Though we preface observations with disclaimers, if our audience is too inexperienced or impressionable to acknowledge our sincerity, it’s the wrong time to speak. In Romans 14.15 and 16, Paul explains why ignoring perceptions harms others and us: “If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” Being strong enough to speak honestly doesn’t override considering our audience. “The ear tests words as the tongue tastes meat,” Job 34.3 says. The ears our words fall on decide the right and wrong in what we say. Putting listeners first disables the compulsion to show off how smart we are and how much we know. It informs us whether it’s time to keep silent or time to speak.

Spiritual Correctness

Political correctness does us a grave disservice by shifting attention from things we say to how we say them. But swapping older, belittling epithets for newer, “appropriate” ones doesn’t change what they mean. It just ties a fresher ribbon around the same scorn and hatred the old phrases expressed. For instance, a person with an IQ below 70 is clinically retarded. As we know, the classification seeped into usage decades ago as a general insult having nothing to do with mental ability. Teaching our children to refer to retarded people as “special” or “challenged” only allays our guilt for abusing the terminology when we were young. Before today ends, hundreds of kids will use “special” and “challenged” disparagingly, meaning exactly what we meant by “retarded.” Nothing’s changed. It’s not a matter of “inappropriate,” but unacceptable. Until political correctness takes that on, it’s no more correct than what it pretends to replace.

Spiritual correctness, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on what’s acceptable by measuring what we say, how we say it, and when it’s said by God’s standards. This is why David prays, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD.” (Psalm 19.14) It’s why Jesus chastises Pharisees who malign Him, saying, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12.34) It’s why Paul advises Timothy to “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4.12) Spiritual correctness fixes our thoughts first, so what, how, and when we speak is acceptable to God. And if He’s pleased, we can be confident we’re saying the right things when it’s time to speak and keeping our thoughts to ourselves when it’s time to be silent.

Attempting to scripturally justify this would stretch credulity past all limits. Nonetheless, I can't resist. Dianne Wiest and John Cusack in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway: "Don't Speak!"

(Tomorrow: One in Ten)


johnmichael said...

Wow, another wow!!

I confess that I have been drawn to gossip at times, and at times participate in it myself. But I always have that guilty feeling, like I've done something wrong. I've always tried to tell myself not to judge others, especially because it will be God who will be judging them in the end.

I love your blog entries and the lessons of life that they teach.

It's as good as the other daily readings I do..."My Utmost for His Highest".

Tim said...

Hi, John!

I think we're all susceptible to a juicy story, especially the kind that start with "You won't believe this!" The problem, of course, is that we do believe it--it's so outrageous, it must be true. And next thing you know, we're turning to somebody else and saying, "You won't believe this!" Meanwhile, the person in question is going about his/her business, completely oblivious to so many people dining out on his/her story. All it takes is one or two times of having the tale trace back to us, and we learn our lesson--well, most of us learn...

Gossip is viral. It infects us so we can infect others and everybody suffers as a consequence--not just the unlucky soul we talk about. I'm no better than anyone else who's lured by the promise of a tasty tidbit. But slowly I'm figuring out that if I don't entertain gossip, I can't repeat it. It's so much easier not knowing than not talking!

Thanks for your thoughts--and your generous compliments. The readers here (like you) are the real heroes. Knowing you're here inspires me to do the best I can. And the comparison to "My Utmost!" Oh my, I can only pray and hope what's here is half that good!

Have a joyful, happy weekend!

kkryno said...

I try to remeber the Golden Rule to guide my actions in life; but I must admit to slipping into the gossip mode at times. It's definitely an ugly human trait, and I also feel guilty after engaging in this practice. I then have to start all over again on the task of not hurting others with destructive prattle. It not only hurts the subject of these types of conversations, but also those who do the talking.

Thanks for this reminder of what we should do without any prompting. Hopefully, the thought of how it would feel if the shoe was on the other foot will suffice.

Have a great week-end, Tim.

Tim said...

Vikki, it's always a treat to see you!

Your comment triggered a line of thought I didn't get while working on the post. I think gossip affects most, probably all of us the same way (at least you, John, and me, anyway): we do it now fully aware we'll feel guilty about it later. Every time, we make a new promise to God and ourselves that we'll try not to do it again. But we do.

Why do we keep doing it? Well, why do we gossip? Because either we want to know or we want to show off how much we know. Hmmm. Wasn't the desire to know what they were told was none of their business what got Adam and Eve in so much trouble to begin with? The serpent slithered by and said, "I really shouldn't tell you this, because you're not supposed to know it..." No wonder they were all ears! And the same thing happened to them that happens to us when we get hold of information we shouldn't have--they passed it on. The need to know what we shouldn't became a family trait.

So, while we should definitely resist doing what our ancestors did, we should also recognize it's something the Human Family has been doing since the first generation. It's primal--which is why it's so hard to resist.

Thanks so much, Vikki, for your comment. One of the greatest joys I get from our work here is when people like you and John add new layers of inspiration and thought!

Have a terrific weekend!


Anonymous said...

Tim, my friend, you are an award winner all the way!

Davis said...

"Spiritual Correctness" as you put it is everywhere today, it seems. Much of the opposition to Bp Gene Robinson comes from this purity cult which I think Jesus had in mind when he reminds the Pharisees that those who are evil do not likely do any good. We all need to be chastened and I know how I too make judgments on those who do not accept that I, as a gay man, struggle too to be true to Christ.

Again, great blog. May I link to you?


Tim said...

Fred, thank you so much for this. I just left a more effusive comment on your blog, but it's important that I echo it here. You were among the first of Straight-Friendly's regular readers--thanks to John Shuck. And having a such an ardent supporter of gay progress who was also a straight minister and seasoned blogger had an invaluable impact on me personally and what I hoped to accomplish here. Without you (and John and Missy) offering such generous support, this work wouldn't have evolved as it quickly and wonderfully as it has. It's still got a long way to go, but I know for a fact it wouldn't be where it is without you. Thanks so much for this honor. It means a great deal to me.

Davis, it's great to see you're back! How right you are, "we all need to be chastened." But we should rejoice when we're disciplined, because it's one of God's myriad acts of love for us. (Revelation 3.19) It keeps us on purpose and all believers, gay and straight, should welcome it wholeheartedly. I feel sad for modern-day Pharisees who seem to think they've outgrown their need for correction and are therefore entitled to correct everyone "beneath" them. Their arrogance and ignorance cut them off from a powerful aspect of God's love. If they were open to His chastening, clearly they'd think and act differently.

PS: By all means, link Straight-Friendly. And make sure you stop by tomorrow, because there's something special coming your way...

Davis said...

Yes, the chastening is God's love in action.