Speak Kindly

January 18, 2018

Do you remember the old adage: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?

I don't think that is true at all. Words can harm and hurt. Words can heal. There is power in the words we speak.

My most recent devotional resource has been Joan Chittister's book, Radical Spirit. She has taken an ancient treatise, The Rule of Benedict, and in particular his writings on humility, and offered them as 12 steps for living a free and authentic life. Three of the steps have been haunting me in the midst of the firestorm that has arisen after President Trump's words on immigrants from particular countries.

Step 9: Listen.

Step 10: Never ridicule anyone or anything.

Step 11: Speak kindly.

Humility, Chittister states, begins with a recognition and that God is God and we are not. We are wonderful, beautiful, created beings with a sacred value, but the universe does not revolve around us. And in fact, we live in community with all the other wonderful, beautiful, created beings of sacred value. The only way we can fully realize who we are meant to be is by our living with an appropriate sense of humility, not devaluing ourselves but also not letting our ego get the best of us. We are no more important, and no less of value, than the next person.

So then, to live a free and authentic life means we need to learn how to live in community, fully present, fully aware, fully connected. And so, these instructions: listen, never ridicule anyone or anything, speak kindly. Now, I live in Minnesota. I know how to do nice. My parents raised me to be polite. If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. I learned that one from an early age. And that is an OK starting place. I appreciate simple courtesies. Saying please and thank you and offering a smile make for a better society and brighten my day.

But Benedict's rule pushes us further. He says we need to listen, really listen, to people and their stories so that we truly learn from one another, because they have wisdom the community needs. And speaking kindly is more than being polite, it is an understanding that the other person has value and worth that we want to honor. We don't make jokes about people. We don't have fun at their expense. We don't make generalizations about whole people groups and we don't write them off.

I was listening to an OnBeing podcast on my drive to Fargo earlier this month. And this statement by Anad Giridharadas caught my attention. The host asked him what is causing him to despair and he said this: "I think the despair is that we've fallen not just out of love, but out of interest with each other. I actually think more and more of us love "our" America, but don't necessarily love America or Americans. We love the ones we love. We loved the ones who love us. It's kind of become like a bad college relationship. We're a country peopled by these rowdy, restless gamblers who tried to make it work, and I think we've lost our way. But I think if we can remember that the whole enterprise here is to simply to try to make it work—that's the experiment."

The whole enterprise is to make it work. What makes America great? I think it is the way it welcomed succeeding generations of immigrants who came with a little but a hope and a dream, and with hard work and perseverance had a chance. They could make a life here. I know that was my family's story. America was founded on an ideal, and it does not work unless it works for all people. I have traveled many places throughout this country and world, and met so many interesting people who simply want to make a life. All they are asking for is a chance, and some basic human kindness.

If you take the time to ask a genuine question and really listen, it is amazing what happens. There is a connection that is real, and you both walk away more alive and more hopeful. Humility is recognizing that God is present in each of these persons and their stories as much as God is present in mine, and they have something to teach me, to help me discover more about God and the world.       

There is power in words. Words can build up. Words can tear down. My intention for 2018 is to choose wisely the words I use, and to listen more and talk less. And when I do speak, I want to speak kindly, with genuine interest in the well-being of the other person. Will you join me? What kind of movement could we create? #seeallthepeople.

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the Untied Methodist Church.

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