Thursday, 29 May 2014

Pulling the buttons off

The power of words has been on my mind a lot lately; words that build up or words that destroy. It's an easy thing to understand that words spoken over someone can encourage or damage them; there have been times in my life when I've been crushed by things said to me, and times when I'd been inspired. 

Words, words, words.

But something else kept nagging at me, and I realised that the power of words also extends to things that are said about someone, when they're not there. And that's a different kettle of fish. 

Everyone knows someone who's constantly running down other people, don't they? Anyone who's ever stood for five minutes in a school playground at pickup time would be able to identify a few people who don't seem to have a good word to say about anyone. Whether it's the shoes, or the hair, the tattoos, or the latest pregnancy, or the frequency that their kids get headlice, or the latest photos on Facebook or...or... anything. We all know people like that. The ones who have sharp nails and rip someone to shreds just for fun. Who seem to love the cut and thrust of the school-run and turn up twenty minutes early to get in some good gossip. 

I'm not like that, you know. If I'm early for the school pick up, I hang about at the end of the road or wait in the car until the children start appearing, and then dive in, deftly scoop up my offspring and scurry off, waving a few times and smiling like a loon. I don't do playground bitchery, so I'm OK, aren't I?

(Interesting note: my computer autocorrect tried to change 'playground bitchery' to 'playground butchery' there. I think that's pretty much the same thing, don't you?

So - it's not my thing. But wait a minute.

An unwelcome thought came to me: I'm no better.  I'm just different.

I think I am much more subtle. When I say, 'I think', what I mean is I haven't really thought about it much at all, until lately. Some things have happened that have made me consider more closely what I say, and how I say it, and I realise that I fall into the same trap as ScaryMum at the school gates, even though I got there by a different route. 

I love words and I use a lot of them. If one day it turns out that there was a quota of words assigned to each of us for use in our entire lifetime, then my last decade or so is going to be pretty quiet. There's nothing I like more than a chat over coffee with a friend, and I think this is where I come unstuck. the more you talk, the more chance you have of using words for the wrong thing.

How easy it is to make someone laugh at someone else's expense, then clap your hand over your mouth and say, 'Oops, shouldn't have said that!'  Easy to boost your own stock in a subtle way by making oblique observations about a person.  Criticise someone's decision, make fun of someone's mannerisms, pull a face when their name is mentioned. Easy even to pass on gossip under the guise of being concerned about someone. There are sophisticated ways of doing what ScaryMum does up front in the playground.

Then there are the occasions where it's not even you doing the talking. How easy it is to sit and listen and sip your coffee while someone else's reputation is chipped away in front of you. To smile and laugh and encourage the other person to offload their bitterness or irritation, legitimate or otherwise. Then place becomes strewn with the metaphorical corpses of all the people whose characters have been assassinated before you've finished your cappuccino.    

I had a dream a while ago that I puzzled over for days before it became clear. 

I was walking down a road near where I live. I passed a crowd of people who were excited and shouting (a bit like they used to do when two people had a fight in the playground, remember?)  As I walked past, I heard a shrill female voice yell, 'There she is! I'm going to kill her!'  I caught the eye of another lady and I grimaced at her. This could be messy.

 I hesitated, but decided that I'd better turn back and see what was going on. I wasn't going to let this woman murder someone. 

The crowd was shouting and screaming but I saw that the aggressive woman had hold of another, smartly dressed lady who looked frightened. The aggressor decided that she wasn't going to kill her after all, just 'rip her to bits'. 

'Ripping her to bits' meant that the angry lady was going to destroy the woman's fine clothes. The victim was wearing a designer outfit and the other woman was determined to ruin it. 

First of all she took her expensive shoes and snapped the heels off. The crowd cheered.

So relieved was I that there was to be no bloodshed that I decided to join in. I reached out for the victim's beautiful silk blouse and pulled it hard. It tore, and all the buttons flew off.

At this moment, I looked down and realised with horror that I was wearing the torn blouse.

And I woke up. 

I think that the dream tells me that when I collude with someone else to damage a person's reputation, I damage myself. When I pick the buttons off someone's life, or cut someone down to size I, too, am diminished. It might not be actual bloodshed, but wounds are inflicted nonetheless. And just as I pulled the buttons off her blouse, I exposed the nasty part of myself as well. 

I decided that I needed to be much more careful with my words. I mustn't score the quick point with a facetious comment at someone else's expense. I need to be careful what I say and what I listen to. I quickly realised how difficult it was. 

The newsreader had a new haircut and it made her look like a nuclear mushroom. A man interviewed in the street on the news had a painfully tenuous grasp of grammar. A politician said something that made my skin crawl and I couldn't resist making an unpleasant and personal remark back at the telly. And that was just in the course of the breakfast news. There was still an awful lot of day left to negotiate.

I have comforted myself by mentally pointing out to God that I'm not the worst. I know there are people who are much more vicious and open about their nastiness and gossip, but I know that it's no defence. If the pass mark for a test is 100% it doesn't matter whether you get 99% or 19%, you've still failed. I know that my sins have been dealt with my Jesus on the cross and that I am pure and forgiven in God's eyes, but the nagging thing for me is twofold:

1.  This is one of those sins that we tend to accommodate. We build it in and excuse it and we just accept that that's day to day life. Everyone does it. 

2. In the Bible, it says this:
'With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers (and sisters), this should not be.'  James 3:9,10
I don't want to be a person who sings praise to God and then is mean about someone over a coffee half an hour later. I don't want to be a person who writes a blog about living as a Christian and can be overheard in a cafe speculating about someone's private business. I don't want to be but I'm aware that I am sometimes exactly that person. 

We are held to a higher account, those of us that love Jesus and want to be different. We are looking for holiness. Our value comes from being daughters of God, not from other people's opinions of us, and if we need to bolster their view of us at someone else's expense, then we are doubly in trouble.

I was praying about this issue and trying to wriggle off the hook by telling God that it wasn't really a Big Thing, was it?  A picture came to mind of a fog. A swirling, dense, smog-like fog. Greeny-grey, and so impenetrable that when someone walked into the fog, they disappeared from view.

The fog is the business of talking about someone behind their back; using words to pull someone down. The whole gossiping, tale-telling, criticising, condemning malarkey that we all play at to some extent, from time to time. 

When you reach out to touch it, just to see what it's like, it sticks to you. The deeper in you go, the more grubby you get, until being dirty is the norm, and you've forgotten what fresh air feels like. 
You breathe in the toxic air, and if you’ve breathed it in, you’ll be dirty on the inside too and eventually you’ll breathe it out again, infecting those around you.

I don't want to live in the fog, Lord. 

I don't want even to play at the edges where I have the illusion of safety, but keep putting a hand in to find out how it feels. I don't want to be the sort of woman who feels better about herself by belittling others. I don't want to do this, but you have shown me how hard it is, how engrained in our culture, how petty meannesses and jokes at others' expense are considered socially acceptable. 

Father, I want to be different. (In a good way, please). I want to find positive things to say instead of giggling at the gossip. I want to hold my tongue no matter what the newsreader's haircut is doing. I want to bite back the clever remarks, even if they might win me a laugh. 

I want to build up, not destroy.

I want to encourage and inspire, not diminish and criticise.

I want the words that come out of my mouth to bring you glory.


Lord, shine your light to dispel the fog and show it for what it is. Burn it away so that it no longer stops me from seeing. Open my eyes to see it all around me and show me the danger of flirting with it by messing about at the edges. 

Send your Holy Spirit to give me the wisdom and strength to walk away from the fog. Make my words kind and gentle. May I speak your truth and nothing else. 



  1. Helen, this speaks to Christian Poets & Writers too! I'll highlight the post on the Christian Poets & Writers blog - - and pray that we consider the words we've written as we revise: Will they heal or harm? Will they dwell on the problem or suggest a loving solution? Will they tear down Christianity or help to up-build the church. God bless us all!

  2. Such a painfully honest and insightful post, Helen. There is much we can all relate to here, sad to say! I echo your prayer and desire to do different as well. Thank you for this word of wisdom that will pave the way for healing and change, one word at a time. Bless you, my friend, for being faithful to what God is teaching you and helping us in the process. :) xx

  3. With you in the desire to do better, the struggle and failure at times, in repentance and the journey. Great post.


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