The tongues of the wise

The month of January is named for Janus, Roman mythology’s god of gates and doorways. Overseeing threshold moments—beginnings, transitions, endings—the two-headed deity is often depicted looking backward with one head and forward with the other. It is a posture befitting the first month of the year, when we generally focus our attention as much on the year just past as the year unfolding.

This particular January’s public discourse, defined right away by a siege on the nation’s Capitol on the day of Epiphany, has had us looking backward perhaps more than usual, searching the archives of previous years for indications of how and where invective and diatribe may have seeded the deeply disturbed behavior of an angry mob. What we could easily overlook in seeking that causal relationship between words and deeds is that words themselves are perfectly capable of causing harm without any assistance from deeds. To put it another way, hurtful words are themselves a sort of angry mob, with the same destructive power. “Some wound as they speak, like swords,” our collective wisdom reminds us (Proverbs 12:18a).

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can really hurt me is an inversion of the children’s rhyme I have always thought more accurate than the original version. But if words can hurt, they also possess tremendous capacities for healing: “I am sorry.” “Please forgive me.” “I respect your right to hold an opinion different than mine.” “Help me understand better what you mean.” “Let’s keep talking about this.” “Can you share with me where you learned that?” “Can I share with you where I learned this?” “Now I’m beginning to see your perspective.” These sorts of words are what Vernard Eller would call rocks in the whirlpool of fevered dialogue, lessening its force, slowing its spin. The earlier proverb completes its dire description on a far more hopeful note: “Some wound as they speak, like swords; but the tongues of the wise heal.”

I pray that in this looking back/looking forward January moment we as people of God will seek to heed wisdom’s call to heal with our tongues, replacing ridicule with respect, and blame with blessing.

Grace and peace.