In the wake of my recent struggles with encouragement, I’ve been paying even more attention than usual to what I say, what others say, and the reactions to both of these (mine and theirs). I’ve been doing this observing in my in-person interactions and in the electronic exchanges that I’ve been a part of or an observer to (Facebook provides so many opportunities for this!).
Although my initial focus was only around the way encouragement is expressed and received, it didn’t take long for my field of view to widen to take a look at what people are saying when they aren’t giving encouragement, as well as when they are. It’s been an interesting experiment in observation, and I received even more input today to make me consider with greater depth the impact of my words in those times when I am not offering encouragement. In particular, I’m paying attention to those times when I could be said to be engaging in anti-encouragement.
I’ve been reading Lois Tverberg’s Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life. This is a book that takes a look at the Jewish context of many of the recorded sayings (and doings) of Jesus to illuminate places where Jewish custom, idiom, or culture may help to explain or give greater depth to his teachings. It’s been a much more enlightening read than I had anticipated.
Today’s reading was her chapter entitled “How to Have a Kosher Mouth,” where she explores Judaic wisdom about the ethics of speech. Some of this rabbinic wisdom can be found in Jesus’s own teachings, but it is all part of a whole Jewish concept of what right speech (and wrong speech) entails. In particular, she takes a look at the ideas of slander, gossip, humiliation of others, and misleading others. I found a good deal in here that made me wince as I consider my own words at times.
The Jewish concept of lashon hara (an evil tongue) includes what we would call gossip. This is the telling even of true stories that are designed to make another look bad. This can include “venting” about something someone has done to us, sharing a bit of juicy news (or rumor), or even just complaining about another person. But this can be expanded to even include “the dust of lashon hara,” which could include things like expressing your opinion of someone non-verbally (e.g., rolling your eyes), passing along an unflattering photograph or other written information to make someone look bad, or even bringing up a topic that you know will cause your conversational partner to engage in lashon hara.
Ouch! As much as I try to watch what I say, I have been guilty of all of those things far more often than I like to admit. In fact, as I read the chapter, examples of times where I’ve said things that would fall into any of these categories came to mind, making me squirm. I also thought about how much of the stuff that comes through my Facebook feed (especially given that it’s an election year in the US) falls into one of these categories. How often do we publicly disparage, make fun of, speculate about, or complain about others in social media forums? No wonder I find myself coming away from Facebook feeling depressed so often!
One of the most interesting things to me about her arguments against engaging in lashon hara and the other kinds of unethical speech described focused not only on the damage done to the victims of our words, but also on the damage that it does to us when we talk about others this way. She ends the chapter with the story of someone who set out to ruthlessly change her speech to be in agreement with the ethical guidelines that Judaism teaches. Although it was tough going to learn new habits, she found that it was worth it because it brought her so much stress relief to not have to worry about being caught saying something negative about someone else.
In fact, USA Today reported on a study that showed that telling lies had a detrimental impact on the health (mentally and physically) of those who told the lies. This doesn’t even consider the negative impact the lies may have had on others. Being dishonest is harmful to oneself. I suspect we’d find that gossip and humiliation of others would have similar negative impacts on the speaker if they were studied.
So what am I learning from this? First and foremost, I have some work to do in cleaning up my own speech. In particular, I fall too easily into the habit of “venting” or complaining about people behind their backs when I’m frustrated about something. And while that often feels good in the moment, I can see how it causes more problems than it solves.
Of course, there are times to tell our stories to another in order to determine an appropriate way to respond to a situation or in order to work toward healing. Although those cases of telling one’s story might involve saying things that make another look bad, if this is done confidentially and with the intention of getting feedback on ways to address a problem or heal a wound, the good may outweigh the bad. But all too often, we move so quickly into telling these stories to others (often multiple others) as a means of releasing emotion or making the person of our scorn look bad.
I need to make sure that the times I share these stories with others are cases where I’ve done all of the personal work on the situation to process my emotions, consider solutions, and move toward healing that I can possibly do on my own. Only when I am truly stuck and cannot find my way alone would it be appropriate to go for help if it involves sharing stories that would make someone else look bad to the person I am confiding in. That’s going to take some work to create a new and healthier pattern.
It also means that I need to continue observing my words of all kinds with the same care that I’ve been giving to watching my encouragement of others. Words have power, and I can be entirely too careless with them.
Finally, it means paying more attention to the words of others around me. I can’t dictate to others what they can or cannot say, but I can choose to spend my time (personally and online) with people who work toward ethical speech habits, so that I am less tempted to engage in lashon hara myself.
I think I’m going to be doing a lot of listening, observing, and biting my tongue (or watching my fingers as I type) over the coming weeks as I create new patterns of healthy speech in my life. I look forward to seeing the positive impacts this will bring to me and to those around me.
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