When our parents taught us to talk, they were actually equipping us with a very powerful weapon which could be used to edify or to destroy. For many of us, it has taken years of honing to know how to use our tongues for good and not for evil. It begins in pre-school ("Oh no, sweetie, we don't use those words. Please apologize to Tommy.") and it's a lesson we continue to learn well into adulthood: words are powerful, and we must handle them with care.
My son and I are currently reviewing this lesson. When he is angered or frustrated, often he will spit venom in the form of words, faster than he can think them over. This is not a new learning topic for us, but when he told me last week that he hoped I would die soon, I decided that maybe it was time for some review. (I also decided that boys are every bit as capable as girls at being drama queens. Sheesh.)
I reminded Jaden of the "Toothpaste Lesson" we had done when he was four. Surprisingly, he remembered it. It goes a little something like this:
1) Sit your children down at the table and give them each a travel-sized tube of toothpaste and a paper plate.
2) Put a twenty-dollar bill in the middle of the table.
3) Tell the children that they are going to have a contest. The first part of the contest is to see who can squeeze all of their toothpaste out onto the plate the fastest. (Little kids love this step.)
4) When the fastest kid shouts "Done!", congratulate him -- and then tell him that the next step is how the winner is determined: whoever can get their toothpaste back INTO the tube the fastest wins the twenty dollars!
5) Watch the children try, in vain, to replace the toothpaste. When they realize it is impossible, explain how the toothpaste is like our words: once we put them out there, they cannot be taken back. Words cannot be 'unsaid.'
Jaden and I came full-circle with the discipline last week, and he lost his Wii for a week. I told him that as he gets older, the stakes get higher -- because as we grow into maturity and life gives us more of a voice, the stakes are higher to use it correctly or risk doing real damage to others and ourselves.
Case in point: a week ago, I spoke at a treatment center for eating disorders and substance abuse. I delivered my talk, I read from my book, and I ended with an extended Q & A session. Afterward, one of the patients approached me as I was packing up my belongings. She had these pleading brown eyes which have been haunting me since last Friday. "How do you get your family to understand? I mean, they're the ones who called me names all my life," she said, as her chin began to tremble, "and now they can't see what their words have done to me."
I told this young woman that while her family may never understand her struggle with eating disorders, she can still ask them to respect it, and I reminded her that her recovery is not her family's responsibility, even though they may have played a role in her descent. Still, I could see the pain in her eyes: she wanted them to own what they had done to her. Was that so much to ask?
I think of another teen I know, a fourteen-year-old boy who suffers verbal abuse at the hands of his own father. Daily, this young man is called "idiot" and "fag" and "loser" -- by his own parent. I cannot even imagine the emotional pain connected to that. I wish we could go back in time to the father's childhood, and sit him down at a table with some toothpaste and a paper plate . . .
We're all carrying deadly weapons around in our mouths, all day long. For centuries, people have come to understand the power of the tongue. Proverbs 18:21 says it this way: "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit." (NIV). I rather like the Message paraphrase: "Words kill, words give life. They're either poison or fruit -- you choose."
The choice, clearly enough, is ours to make. Words, like toothpaste, are easy to squeeze out -- and impossible to squeeze back in. Life and death are inside of our mouths. Let us choose wisely.