Yesterday, exactly one month after launching this blog, I wrote a post that I deleted in the pre-dawn hours today. I crawled out of bed, pulled on a sweatshirt and fleece pants for my morning walk and crept into the kitchen, trying not to wake my sleeping husband. As I do almost every morning, I stood for a moment at the bedroom door, waiting for my dog Beckley to creep past me. As on every other morning, I wondered how such a boisterous dog knows that at this one time he’s supposed to creep quietly instead of prancing happily around me, barking, as he usually does. “Good boy!” I whispered.
I pulled the bedroom door quietly shut and stood for a moment in the kitchen, as the dog tilted his head to the side and looked at me quizzically. Resolute, I strode across the room and pulled open the laptop, going first to my Facebook page to delete the post announcing the topic of the blog that already showed one Like. I hit the X and deleted the post. Then I logged into my blog account and checked the stats. Someone had read it at 1:00 a.m. and someone else at 3:00 a.m. I frowned and unpublished the blog, deleting it from my page. But, of course, I couldn’t do anything about those few people who have subscribed to receive my posts in an email. So I closed the laptop, put on my coat, and opened the door into the darkness. Oh, well. It had to happen some time, I thought.
Now this isn’t what you’re thinking. I didn’t say anything in the blog that I wish I hadn’t said. But I had tried to write about two topics, and I felt I really hadn’t said what I wanted to say about either. If you subscribe to my posts and haven’t read the deleted one yet, don’t bother to run to your email to see what juicy details I divulged and then wished I hadn’t. You’d probably be bored before you got to the end of it, and if you did read the whole thing, I’m fairly sure you’d think, Well, that wasn’t one of her better efforts.
Playwright Tom Stoppard says through one of his characters in The Real Thing, “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you can get the right words, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” And in the past month, I’ve discovered that I can also nudge myself a little. I sometimes write my way to knowing myself a little bit better. I think about things in a different way. I change my mind about what I thought I knew.
So this morning I realized how hard that is to do in a digital world where nothing ever really goes away. The printed word goes into the cloud, and video clips are played and replayed, never allowing anyone to forget embarrassing gaffs or to revise their thinking in any way. Politicians are accused of flip-flopping, which, granted, they sometimes do, but we seem to leave no room for our leaders to say what they really think or to change their minds based on new information, fresh arguments, and careful thinking.
How many times have you wished you could take back that picture you posted or that email you sent? How many times has someone said something in writing or in a video clip that hurt your feelings? When we depended on snail mail, we had time to think about that scathing letter before we dropped it into the mail slot. Now, we can hit Send or Post and launch our words forever into the ether, never knowing when the digital cloud will turn into a rain cloud that drenches us in a torrent of our own verbiage.
Of course, this has happened to some degree since humanity first began to speak. And there are some words that haunt us forever—sometimes long after the speaker or the listener has forgotten them. Humans being feeling creatures, we sometimes carry the hurt of the spoken word long after we should have thrown old baggage into the trash. Arguably the most naïve teenager in my high school, I still feel indignant when I think of the classmate who said of me, “That girl may be book smart, but she ain’t got a lick of common sense.” I’m guessing the person who said it forgot it ten minutes after the incident that evoked the pronouncement, but I’ve remembered it for forty years, though it was never written down. And I have had former students tell me I said things to them that have no record in my memory. That will always be true when something speaks to or hurts the heart.
What’s new is that technology has made retracting our words more formidable. Imprecise or hasty language has always demanded forgiveness. But forgiveness is harder when the wounded can shake your words in your face, post them for the world to see, or play them endlessly on the evening news.
But though the weapons are more sophisticated, I remembered that this is a conflict as old as time when I returned from my walk this morning and opened the computer to read the Common Lectionary for the day. It reminded me of yesterday’s epistle reading from James, which I’d read yesterday morning and completely forgotten in the ensuing 24 hours:
For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle…For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue…With it we bless the Lord, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
Coincidence? Maybe. But the irony made me smile and tilt my head at God the way the dog had tilted his head at me an hour earlier.
So how do your words come forth today?