Speech: Bomb or Balm
Words have power, whether we realize it or not. And their impact bounces back to us. Whatever we say the recipient of our message will echo our tone and intent. Harsh words can expect a forceful reaction. But when our words are soft-spoken, the response will most likely be agreeable.
Two little sketches will illustrate this.
Shelley was very frustrated. She had the feeling she was raising the family all by herself. This evening was particularly stressful. In the morning she had taken her Mom into town for a doctor's appointment. Halfway through the exhausting day she noticed that she was developing a migraine headache. Around suppertime her temples were throbbing. Since Bruce had to attend a meeting, she had to manage all the family activities by herself, again. Between making the children do their chores, helping with homework assignments and resolving a few out-of-hand arguments, she had no time to nurse her full-blown headache. When little Mike fell down the stairs just as he was ready for bed, she quickly comforted him by allowing him to go to sleep in her own bed. But, alas. When Bruce came home, exhausted and frustrated too, he was not pleased to find a little boy in the big bed. Without delay he addressed his wife, "Were you not able to handle the children tonight? You always give in to them. Why did you allow Michael to sleep in our bed? You know I don't like that. Or don't you care about me?" For one moment Shelley was baffled and numb. Then her frustration turned into anger as well. "You don't care about us, about me! You and your important meetings! What about your own family?" The explosives kept going back and forth for some time. It took a while before they were asleep together in the big bed, more sad than sorry.
Just as Carol sat down for an energy-restoring cup of tea, the phone rang. It was Harold's mom, all confused and scared. "Harold is not home? I cut myself with the big knife. I think I have to see a doctor." After having given the older children instructions concerning the bedtimes of the younger ones, Carol rushed off to her mother-in-law. She certainly hoped this incident would not take the whole evening. Maybe the cut was more a scratch. You never knew with Mom. But three tiresome hours of hospital waiting later, she drove the family car back into the garage. "Oh, Mom. You came home just in time. Brian threw up!" Feeling queasy herself, she went upstairs to comfort the sick boy and clean the mess. Too tired to make his bed right away, she quickly put her youngest son in her own bed for the time being. With a faint smile on his pale face he fell asleep like a prince. When Harold came home, he found Carol snoozing on the sofa. He decided not to wake her up yet, but to take a quick shower first, hoping that the warm water would flush out his headache. To his surprise the lights were on in the master bedroom. Then he saw a little boy in the big bed. That's strange. Didn't they agree not to allow that anymore? At that moment Carol walked in. Harold turned around and hugged his wife. "Did you have a difficult night? How were the children? What is the matter with Brian?" After exchanging the recent facts and concerns, they fell asleep embracing each other. Harold had actually forgotten about his shower.
In the first illustration, we encounter two tired parents. Their fatigue is compounded by their frustration. When the one allows this frustration to be converted into anger, the other does so in return. An unpleasant and hurting remark is like a bomb. When it is hurled into the discussion, the communication explodes. Unreasonable remarks fly in every direction as pieces of scrap metal. Angry words no longer carry a meaningful load, but are reduced to shouts of unchecked frustration, even hatred. The person who threw the ammunition will likely be blown over by a full-blasted return fire. Casualties fall on both sides and the resulting wounds may take a long time to heal. Some injuries leave a scar for many years. Though words are supposedly not able to break bones, they certainly have the capability to break hearts. Unmeasured amounts of damage are done by saying the wrong word at the wrong time.
The second scenario also presents us with two tired parents. Both had just lived through a stressful evening as well, but the father receives the grace not to take it out on his wife. His kind words have the immediate effect of soothing balm on a smarting abrasion. In return, his wife is receptive to listen to the story of his difficulties. In the end, their frustrations have subsided rather quickly. Since they do not have an angry eruption to recuperate from, they are better able to deal with the next complication that comes their way.
The impact of both soothing and hurting words is aptly captured by the wisdom of Proverbs 15:1:
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a hard word stirs up anger.
The explosive type of speech often originates from an urge to control. The speaker is determined to bring his point across loud and clear, because he cannot accept that others do not agree with him. The need of the listener is subjected to the wish of the speaker. In the end there is increased frustration on both sides. The one did not succeed in completely convincing his target, while the other may feel inferior and manipulated.
In contrast, soothing words usually stem from a desire to have mutual communication. The speaker is sensitive to the situation of his listener and values his opinion. He may even consider the possibility of being incorrect on some points. Consequently, the conversation becomes a real exchange of thought between two equal partners. Both will feel enriched and encouraged afterwards.
Though bombs are designed to explode, there are highly specialized technicians who know how to defuse them. With much knowledge, sophisticated skill and numerous precautions they take the risk of disarming explosives, often successfully. In a similar way it is possible to defuse aggressive speech. The skill requires a willingness to take some risks and a diploma in courage and humility. But under the blessing of the Lord it may boast an incredibly high success rate.
This method of restoration is founded in our love for God and the neighbour. When we are in a situation in which we feel attacked by a barricade of insults and accusations, we do very well to pray first. Our old man would self-righteously pick up the battle axe. But a prayer serves as a reminder that the Spirit works a new heart in us. This will prepare us for the next prerequisite for bomb defusing: we must forgive. Revenge is not an option. In self-sacrifice we may have to overlook some unpleasantries or insults. Besides this ability to forgive, we need patience. We may despairingly think that things will never change. We might think that we cannot cope any longer. But we have to learn the skill of being patient and biding God's time.
With this forgiving and forbearing attitude, we can apply the remedies of compassion, humour and distraction. Instead of flinging the accusations back, we can compassionately enquire after the wellbeing of the aggressor. Is he tired? Did he encounter difficulties at work that day? Does the family face financial hardship? Similarly, the right dosage of humour can do a lot of defusing, when it is administered at the right time. As the saying goes, one cannot stay angry with the person one laughed with. Distraction helps to reveal the larger picture. In an unoffensive way you could share some related facts that the other person is not aware of. The changed focus facilitates the calming-down process, and sets the stage for mutual sharing of more facts and feelings.
Written language can be destructive, too. Unfortunately, an immediate attempt to contain the damage is not always possible. This restriction must make a writer very careful. In most instances an author is driven by the strong conviction that he must convey his thoughts to a larger public. But this drive does not preclude a constant and scrupulous examination of his motives for writing. Is he angry, or concerned? Self-righteous, or compassionate? Does he want to take control over his readers' minds, or does he want to pass on some hard-gained insight? Does he consider his invisible audience ignorant or informed? An author's attitude determines his style and vocabulary. And since the proof is always in the pudding, it is a good idea to ask an objective, interested person to evaluate the fruit of one's pen before it goes to press.
Of course, the effect of language is not only determined by the speaker or writer, but also by the recipient of the conveyed message. It makes a big difference whether the listener (reader) is open-minded, or has already made up his mind beforehand. Prejudice at the receiving end can interfere with the transmission of the message, to the point of distorting it. In that case it is the listener (reader) who does the controlling.
The Lord knows how difficult it is to keep our language wholesome and healing.
The tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire? And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.(James 3:5, 6)
But in the strength of the Spirit believers can learn to speak properly. 'Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.'(Ephesians 4:29)
Language is a great gift. God crowned His creation with a creature that could speak. When the Deceiver employed lying words to make man sin, the human word became potentially destructive. But the Word Incarnate disarmed the Liar's lethal artillery. Our words are once again able to spread the balm of hope and restoration.