Have your words ever come back to haunt you? You threw out a random opinion or vented an emotion at some time in the murky past. Later, like an echo across a valley, the words returned. You did not remember you said it. But the hearer remembered.
The experience can be painful. The Bible letter from James says “the tongue is a fire.” Words get released, they spread, sometimes wildly, and they can do real damage.
In our image-driven culture, words still abound. One assumes that over-supply will decrease their relative value. But over-supply also increases fuel for a “tongue-flagration.” Contemporary communication is instant. We lose float time, the delay necessary to get the brain engaged before the tongue. The odds are good that we’ll say something bad and then wish for a say-over.
Texters and Tweeters and Facebook friends engage one another far more regularly and superficially than ever before. Although telephone conversations are declining, words still pour in from many sources. Marshall McCluhan observed that we do not have “ear-lids.” We cannot close our ears as we close our eyes. We hear and are heard.
The other day some of my words bounced back. Thankfully they were constructive. My niece and family serve in Haiti in a Christian ministry of compassion. They reminded me of something I wrote as they prepared to return to Haiti after time in the States post-earthquake. At that time they shared their unsettledness about returning. In my response I threw out this paragraph, intended as an encouraging summation to my email: “So smack a mosquito for me. Dodge the cholera. Love grandly and having counted the cost of going back, now discount it. This is the adventure that you are living. There is heaven in it all.”
I remembered neither the words nor the sending of them. There is some good advice there. But that’s not really my point. The point is this: We never know what a little encouragement will mean. Similarly, we cannot comprehend the reverberating damage of critical and discouraging words. My niece says she recalls this encouragement often, and always with a smile.
Plainly I’ve shared a positive example rather than recounting my shame at the pains inflicted by my fiery tongue. I needn’t make this my confessional. There is too much to confess. The Bible’s book of wise sound-bites called Proverbs says this: “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.” (Proverbs 18:21, The Message)
We choose words continually, often in the heat of moment and certainly in a flood of communication. Choose life-giving words. Offer fruit. Hide the poison. Life-giving words will never haunt and the echoes are beautiful.