I don’t have a good answer for how to address the unfiltered, harsh, and mean-spirited language that is often used all around us. All you have to do is look at the news to see people verbally attacking each other. There certainly should be room for disagreement and debate about important issues, especially in our personal relationships. Anger is a natural and appropriate response whenever we feel wronged. But there are ways to honestly express our views without degrading the worth of other people. Christians are called to strive to use words in ways that express respect for the dignity of every human being.
Americans cherish the right to freedom of speech, and we believe this sets us apart from many other countries. But Americans also value the responsibility of every individual to work for building up the common good. These two values are in tension because building up the common good might sometimes cause us to practice restraint about the words we choose to say out loud. In recent years, the practice of rugged individualism has often won out over the practice of working for the betterment of a more just and peaceful society.
Christians have a higher calling to follow Jesus and the disciples by trying to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Here are some quotes from the New Testament that challenge Christians to be careful about what we say.
“be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” —James 1:19
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up” —Ephesians 4:29
“get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth” —Colossians 3:8
“make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” —Romans 14:19
The Golden Rule to “do unto others as we would have others do unto us,” has been a cornerstone of all the world’s great religions. Those who call themselves Christians have a high calling to use words in ways that take into consideration the well-being of others, though this can be difficult in the heat of the moment when we are having an argument.
Brain researchers, along with Daniel Goleman and others working on the study of emotional intelligence, report that whenever human beings feel threatened or angry or fearful, there is a certain part of the brain called the amygdala that takes over, sending out neurochemicals that override other parts of the brain with powerful fight or flight messages. Throughout human evolution, this response has helped us to survive. But the problem is that when we are having an “amygdala hijack,” it’s hard to think rationally. For about ninety seconds (the typical lifespan of an “amygdala hijack”), we can only think about the fight or flight response, and rational reason is impossible. In the midst of a conflict, that’s why it is often so difficult to avoid blurting out things we later regret.
“Emotionally intelligent” people have learned to notice when they are feeling threatened or angry or fearful, and have developed the ability to pause for those ninety seconds before they say anything. That pause provides time for the neurochemicals caused by the amygdala response to settle down, thus allowing the rational mind to take over again.
One way to use this information is for us to take a “holy pause” whenever we are feeling upset. Once we notice we are feeling threatened or angry, we can say to the other person, “Let me take a moment to think about what you have said.” Then we can take ten long deep breaths, spanning about ninety seconds, to allow reason to return to us before we say anything else.
After taking a “holy pause,” we might have a better chance of coming up with words that are more thoughtful, realistic, and kind. At the very least, we might be able to achieve the ethical goal to “do no harm.” In the midst of taking a holy pause, and breathing deeply, we might even invite God to help us come up with the best words to respond.
—The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley