How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire… For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be.James 3:5b-10
An indictment against all of us from the author of the Epistle of James to the early Church. Yet it highlights a problem we all have. We talk a lot. A study highlighted in the July 6, 2007 edition of Science magazine found that the average person speaks 16,000 words a day. In an article entitled, The World is full of Overtalkers, in this week’s edition of Time magazine, author Dan Lyons writes, “For most of us, talking is like breathing. You don’t think about it: you just do it.” And there’s the rub; too often we don’t think before we speak and the words we do speak are too often cruel and hurtful. Our discourse is not informed by love.
Lyons has these suggestions for becoming more mindful about the words we use:
- When possible, say nothing. Pretend words are money and spend them wisely.
- Master the power of the pause. Take a breath. Wait before speaking.
- Seek out silence to detox yourself from mindless speaking.
- Learn how to listen.
As I look back on my life, it is not so much the things I have done or not done that I regret, but rather the things I have said. The old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is sadly not true. Words do hurt. Ridicule, distain, humiliation, taunting, all cause injury, and verbal abuse causes more than emotional trauma. It inflicts lasting physical effects on brain structure.
Neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields studied this unfortunate truth. He asked young adults, ages 18-25, with no history of exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, or parental physical abuse, to rate their childhood exposure to parental and peer verbal abuse when they were children, and then they were given a brain scan.
The results revealed that those individuals who reported experiencing verbal abuse from their peers during middle school years had underdeveloped connections between the left and right sides of their brain through the massive bundle of connecting fibers called the corpus callosum. Psychological tests given to all subjects in the study showed that this same group of individuals had higher levels of anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation, and drug abuse than others in the study.
James is well aware of the power of our words. He is calling us to a form of mindfulness. He is asking us, as followers of Christ, to pay attention to our words. Each one of us should strive to become conscious of something that usually happens unconsciously: speaking. The way of love, the way of Christ, calls us to weigh our words carefully before we speak.
Wherefore, Beloved, let everyone of us, be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.James 1:19
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord. Amen.