“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” – Benjamin Franklin
Isn’t that just the problem.
We all have things we want to say and it’s so nice to cram the words in when you’ve got the moment, regardless of the affect those words might have afterwards. You say them, and then in a sickening instant you recognize how wrong you were to have said them, but it’s too late. That which has been said can never, ever be unsaid. That which has never been said still has a chance to be said in the correct manner at the correct time.
If I could, I’d ask for some magical meter that measures the danger levels of “Things I’m Going To Say” so I could know beforehand how much damage I’m about to do; hopefully with such (pre?) evidence, I could stop myself before saying anything at all. How to predict your words and their impact requires a certain level of foresight and emotional intelligence, combined with a lack of vanity plus a great amount of wisdom. It’s an awful lot to ask of a person to maintain this balance at all times, in addition to external factors such as incendiary conversations or insults.
Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret. – Laurence J. Peter
Thus, even the most cautious of us fall victim to the temptation of speaking when not necessary.
There comes a point to decide how much diplomacy is necessary, as well. I think about people who stand up for a certain ideal or political statement, and how much they offend when saying the things they do. Consider Nelson Mandela, Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Jesus Christ, or those who are more contemporary such as Richard Dawkins or Steve Jobs. All those who are exceptionally firm on their standpoints and with their words, creating clear divisions in people and communities. Should they have remained silent to avoid such offenses? Is it better to be outspoken at risk of animosity but making a deep mark in the social conscious? How far should your words go though they offend, if indeed their greater purpose is for something we cannot immediately see?
Are there indeed some things that should never be said? Are really some things better left unsaid? Let’s take venting and complaining, for example. Putting thoughts into spoken words somehow releases stress or internal pressures, even though they serve no other purposes; and even then, though fully aware that we are simply airing our grievances, those words, as empty as they are, can still be toxic to the listener. So then, should we keep them to ourselves? It’s so easy to say, “Look, I’m just saying… take it or leave it… don’t take this to heart….” and disregard that someone has heard what you are saying and it can plant a seed in their minds regardless of your intent. The more I think about it, the more I recognize with some disconcertment that all my words carry weight.
I have a unfortunate habit of thinking too quickly and my mouth following suit before my empathy can even check in. I end up overwhelming or cutting others with my words before noticing that they’re even hurt. This I am trying to learn, but I find that no matter how much I think to myself, “wait before speaking!” I remain woefully inadequate to reining in the sharpness or simple, complete foolishness of my words.
Maybe speaking can be somewhat allegorized with this idea of a man who doesn’t know his own strength and inadvertently hurts others because they are unable to control the immense power they have, even though it’s far from their intent. This man’s strength, once trained and wielded in the proper way, can have incredible impact for the good. Could speaking be the same way? I cling to the possibility that I can grow wiser and kinder, hoping to use my ability to think, write, and verbalize for the better.