Our words have power. Guard well what we say.
When I was a child, we were constantly instructed in the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”
Now, to be quite honest, absolutely no one followed this sage advice (or, if they did, they were considered to be an unbearable prig!) We all said, and thought, plenty of not-nice things, and not a few really malicious, cruel and vicious things. But we were careful about whom we said them to, usually saving our nastiest remarks for a limited circle of like-thinking friends. It was rare that any of these companions would admonish someone for cruel statements, and even then, the criticism was pallid: “That’s not nice!”, usually followed by a giggle or occasionally the comment, “But true!”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a bad bit of life advice, that learning to keep spiteful or mean observations either in the privacy of one’s own mind or at least among a narrow group of people. Mannerly behavior, however hypocritical, ruled; courtesy was valued, and those who failed to keep even a modicum of a civil tongue in their heads were reviled as malicious and disgusting, and widely avoided. One did not want the taint of their bad behavior to rub off on one’s own reputation, any more than one wanted to become a target of their vicious contempt.
Not so now, when every bit of mind garbage is spewed out to the entire populace, into every corner of the world, via a keyboard or voice-to-text, accumulating Likes from equally vile-minded strangers. The nastier one can be, it seems, the more judgmental, rude, cruel, or despicable, the better. Abhorrent speech is no longer scorned as evidence of a small-minded person, or of someone with a size 12 ego and a size 2 soul. Maliciousness is encouraged as funny or entertaining. Compassion, civility, empathy, kindness, courtesy, caring…those have become the calling cards of the truly old-fashioned—traits that are despised, rather than emulated.
As a society, it appears, we have sunk to the lowest common denominator, urged on by the sick cohesion of social media and even by vulgar and vicious national leaders. And that saddens me. It breaks my heart.
Yet it was not that long ago (and in a possibly mythic era) that the concept of chivalry was touted. Ballads were sung about such exemplary behavior; legends were written and repeated. And for all the flaws inherent within the chivalric code (and there were many), there was still something to be said for many of those ideals: To live with loyalty and honor. To protect the weak and defenseless. To fight for the welfare of all. To speak the truth at all times. To avoid meanness and deceit. To respect and honor women. Chivalry, though, was merely a European concept. Other cultures worldwide taught similar values to their young: Courage. Respect for and appreciation of the wisdom of one’s elders. Courtesy. Honor. Compassion. Charity. Deportment. And while it is true that not one culture, anywhere, at any time in the history of human civilization, can claim that all its members lived their lives in coherence with those teachings, the important factor is that such concepts were imparted. The very teaching of these ideals inculcated conscience in the students. It gave them a map, a pathway to life establishing consideration for others as a foundation.
Perhaps, then, that is the main factor missing in today’s society. The trappings of courtesy, of manners; the slightly hypocritical keeping of impertinent thoughts to oneself, that were once a stable groundwork for behavior that demonstrated consideration for the feelings and needs of others—those concepts are no longer taught. Rarely do individuals learn a foundation for kindness, or establish personal integrity.
Words, some say, are in and of themselves a form of energy. To speak a word aloud; to type it into a forum; to write it, as I write these essays–to disseminate any word, in any way, is to give an energetic life to that word. When we speak, write, type, or promulgate vile and cruel and vicious, or untrue, unkind or uncivil words, we contribute to the jangling dissonance of negativity, the misunderstanding and malice that seem to hover constantly over current social interaction.
But when we make a concerted effort to remove hateful speech from our personal lexicons; when we intentionally infuse our words with benevolence and consideration, with gentleness, courtesy and understanding, we go more than halfway toward meeting others with a handclasp acknowledging our shared humanity.
And if we genuinely cannot say, speak, write or type anything good or kind or caring, we can always choose to, yes, say nothing at all.
If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate the post, “The Speech of Angels”, which you locate by scrolling below to the Archives. It was published October 4, 2017. And, as always, please feel free to republish this blog, with attribution.