My mother, who died more than 20 years ago, left me with two sayings that are embedded in my memory.
First, she taught me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Mom was a perfectionist, in the best sense of the word, and passed that quality along to me.
Second, she taught me, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” In all of her days here on Earth, I’m not sure my mother ever said a negative word about another person.
This second truth seems especially out of step with the modern world. It seems to me that we’re all now living in a tsunami of negativism. The air around us is filled with vitriolic words, angry spirits and critical assessments. Dare I say that we’re all being poisoned by the toxic air we’re breathing?
It’s so easy in our culture to spew bitterness into the world. There was a time, years ago, when, if we happened to be upset about something, we could complain about it to our spouse, or maybe our neighbor. It was one-on-one, and our criticism had limited impact.
Now, however, we can complain about something to the world-at-large. We can tweet our dissatisfaction to the masses, write a bad review of the restaurant on Yelp, post a scathing remark about someone on Facebook, or write a scalding review of a book on Goodreads or Amazon.
It’s all so easy and impersonal. Just vent our hostility on social media, press “Send,” and everyone who cares to read it can know of our displeasure.
Of course, we leave in our wake a host of hurt people — acquaintances who thought they were our friends, restaurant owners trying their best to serve delicious food, politicians wanting to serve the common good, and authors endeavoring to change the world for the better through the written word. We might feel better for venting our hostility, but the collateral damage we’ve produced is not pretty.
There is an old Hebrew concept of words that I think bears remembering. The ancient Hebrews believed that words are like arrows, and, once they are fired, they can never be retrieved. Therefore, they would say, be very, very careful before you fire that arrow. Once it is in the air, you can’t get it back.
Once we’ve sent that e-mail, posted that message on Facebook or Instagram, written that nasty review, or shouted at our child or spouse, we’ve launched an arrow that we can’t retrieve. And it’s probable that that arrow will do immeasurable damage.
One of those ancient Hebrews — the apostle Paul — once wrote, “Finally, beloved, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8).
How about not just thinking about these things but tweeting, e-mailing, or Facebooking these things? How about vowing to quit spewing anything negative into the already negative air and start focusing on the positive things people do? How about vowing not to discourage anyone but to encourage everyone?
I know that sounds Pollyannish and quaint. I also know that there are legitimate times to protest obvious wrongs. But I think we’re all in danger of making hateful, critical communication not only commonplace but acceptable.
We might not be able to do much to stem the onslaught of inflammatory words flying all around us, but we can do this: We can build an outpost of grace and encouragement in our marriage, in our family, among our friends. In our circle of intimate relationships, we can focus on building people up instead of tearing people down
And our motto will be the simple, quaint one my mother taught me a long time ago: "If we can’t say something nice about one another, we just won’t say anything at all."
Judson Edwards is the author of a dozen books and lives in Cedar Park.