If only I could eat my words

I love object lessons. One of my favorite illustrations involves toothpaste. Each participant is given a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, a paper plate and one ooey-gooey mission: squeeze the tube dry. After the tubes are flattened, participants receive a tooth pick and are given the daunting task of putting the tooth paste back into the tube. It’s an impossible feat. The lesson? Words are like toothpaste. Once they’re piped out, they cannot return.

I was reminded of the power of words last year when my husband, a professor, read through student evaluations. While most students expressed positive feelings about the classes and astuteness of their instructor, a few malevolent comments were among the mix. The comments were not of the constructive nature, rather petulant, sharp toned, and intended to wound.

I wanted to find those surly students and give them a lesson on manners. I wanted to take away the pained expression worn by my tender husband. I did not want to think about Dr. W. “That was different,†I told myself. “No it wasn’t,†said a voice deep within.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. – Ephesians 4: 29, 31.

The image of the kind, shy man with an unkempt appearance and heart for God’s creation stamped my mind. When I was a college sophomore I regarded Dr. W as an adversary of sorts. He stood between me and a higher G.P.A. I needed a science credit and heard that fun times were to be had in environmental biology. But I didn’t get into Dr. Fun’s class. Instead, the mild manner professor who asked tough questions was to instruct me on grassy and tundra terrain and various species of algae living in local lakes.

The fact that Dr. W. was so impassioned about his subject infuriated me. Did he honestly think that this communication major who was, in her own mind, destined to be the next Diane Sawyer cared about oats, goats, and banana pokes? I found his teaching methods challenging and dismissed it as his problem. “If he was a good teacher, I’d certainly understand the material,†I rationed.

While I never talked unkindly to Dr. W., I unleashed my fury with a No. 2 pencil. When time came for me to submit my student evaluation I knew that my grade for the class was a C. Anger bubbled over as I checked the Most Definitely Agree box next to the statement Professor has distracting mannerisms. I followed up the multiple choice portion with terse comments. In my immature mind I accepted no responsibility for my poor grade.

Yes, I missed a lot of classes, “but had he not been so boring I would have shown up more often.†No, I didn’t take good notes, “but if he were a better professor I would have.†On and on I rationalized and blamed my woes on Dr. W. Had I even had a smidge of proof, I would have blamed him for every ill in society including poverty, blizzards, and Shepherd’s Pie. At the time, I didn’t feel the slightest guilt regarding my shallow words. “After all, he needs this feedback to better his performance, it’s his job to do well,†I told my friend Joy who shared similar beliefs about the class.

Oh if only I could go back. If only I could erase those harsh words and replace them with encouragement and constructive suggestions. I don’t know how Dr. W. felt when he read my comments and the disparaging remarks of other students. But I cannot image he was edified. In fact, knowing his gentle demeanor, I’d wager that his expression was similar to that of my husband’s… a kicked in the gut, stabbed in the back look of anguish, surprise, and confusion.

Words…whether spoken or written, they yield power.

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. James 19-20 NIV

3 Responses to If only I could eat my words
  1. Bobbie Jo
    October 29, 2008 | 2:19 pm

    I just loved your object lesson and plan on using it for my Sixth grade girls bible study I am teaching. Thank-you!

  2. gretchen
    October 29, 2008 | 6:28 pm

    So true. Another similar lesson is hammering nails in a board and then taking them out. Even though the nails are no longer there, the evidence of them remains. This is one I use a lot with my kids, and (ahem) occasionally with myself.

  3. ozjane
    October 30, 2008 | 9:07 am

    That toothpaste trick is a fabulous youth or children’s activity if you can find enough cheap toothpastes.
    But is is so so true.
    And God views our thoughts as He does our words lest we think I have never done that…….
    No…toothpaste, words and thoughts do not go back but they can be stopped.
    Praise God.