Me and My Big Mouth

March 19, 2013

joe-bidenA couple of days after St. Patrick’s Day, I am remembering the infamous St. Patrick’s Day political breakfast in Boston. I had the (good or bad?) luck of attending it while I was away at graduate school.

The Boston political scene reminded me quite a bit of Chicago’s.  Lots of Irish politicians, Italians, and other ethnics (including a Puerto Rican city councilman I got to meet).  Democrats all.  A great many who were full of hot air.  (Did you know that that’s how Chicago got its nick name, “Windy City,” by the way? It was born from a journalist’s reference to the boastful, big mouths of the city’s boosters and politicians, not the actual wind.)

Another big mouth I got to experience at the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast was that of then-Senator Joe Biden.  It was 2007, early in the presidential race, and Biden was one of the candidates making his rounds on the speaking circuit.  He treated that space as if it were an intimate audience of close friends.  I whinced as he said a number of things that I thought one shouldn’t say in public—or probably ever.  That whole breakfast was characterized by “good natured” political ribbing and ethnic slurs and other jokes that would be considered inappropriate by many, mind you.  Nonetheless, it was my up-close view of the Joe Biden who is known for speaking before he thinks.

On that note, let me offer this personal confession and a collective challenge.  Sometimes I have that problem, too.  It’s probably one that many of us need to work on in one way or another.

I remember a few occasions that are telling.  (Interestingly, these examples of what not to do are NOT from the year when I was on sabbatical from politics.  Maybe my tongue was a little more tame when I was under less stress?)

Just a few weeks ago at work, I shared an incident with a colleague.  It was a true story.  It exemplified a challenge we were facing as we tackled a project meant to improve our systems in our workplace.  Maybe I thought it would be useful.  But in hindsight I realized that I probably shouldn’t have shared that much detail.  I should have kept my frustration to myself.

A few years ago at a speaking engagement, in a graduate school sociology class on gentrification, the professor of the class called me the “Queen of Tell it Like it Is.” She meant that in a good way.  But I’ve had to reflect on that and consider whether I’d like the consequences if some of what I shared got back to certain people.

In another case, the pastor had nudged me to say something pastoral as I concluded a presentation to my then-fellow congregants about the history and politics of our church’s neighborhood.  I said something prophetic instead of pastoral.  ‘Cause that’s what God seems to have given me—a prophetic voice.  I challenged the congregation to think about—in light of the information I had just shared with them—whether we were really being relevant to the target population our church literature suggested we were aiming for.  Were we really carrying out social justice through community development in our neighborhood?  Or just paying it lip service? I pissed some people off.

Like many of our personal traits, the same characteristic can be both a strength and a weakness, depending on how we apply it.

Despite my own failings in this arena, I’m a true believer in the idea that not everything that comes to one’s mind is something one should say.  We all need to do some filtering. Or consider our approach.  Some prophetic challenges might merit being offered, but when, where, and how we do it might make a difference whether one’s words truly can be heard and acted on appropriately.

(And, too often, we Christians misuse teachings about speaking the truth in love. Telling the truth becomes an excuse to spew judgment or hate or gossip.  But more on that later.)

For now, let me leave us all with some ancient words of wisdom about taming our tongues:

  • A knife-wound heals, but a tongue wound festers.”  ~ Turkish Proverb
  • The tongue is, at the same time, the best part of man and his worst; with good government, none is more useful, and without it,  none is more mischievous~ Anacharsis, a Scythian philosopher
  • Give your tongue more holiday than your hands or eyes. ~ Rabbi Ben Azai, a compiler of the Talmud
  • The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright:  but the mouth of  fools poureth out foolishness. ~ The Bible, Proverbs 15:2
  • The tongue should not be suffered to outrun the mind. ~ Chilo of Sparta, Greek politician, one of the Seven Sages

Words to live by.

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