Check Your Weapons at the Door

Forget nukes - our words can be the most dangerous of all

Posted Apr 20, 2015

Wikimedia/public domain
Source: Wikimedia/public domain

Arms control is the question of the day. Should Iran have nukes? Should Israel sell arms to Ukraine? Is the sale of US arms fueling the warring Arab states?

But there is yet another arms race that isn’t being discussed. Forget the nukes and the weapons of mass destruction. The world’s most dangerous weapon is still at large. And that weapon is the human tongue.

We’ve all been on the receiving and giving end of words that rip relationships apart, words that tear families apart, words of prejudice, hate words or racial slurs, words of defeat, like you’ll never make it, or you’re not good enough.

And understand when I say words that I mean spoken and written words, including texting, emailing, and posting. In fact, one of the most dangerous arms races today is on the internet. For example cyber bullying, or the lowest of all life forms, internet trolls: folks that are too cowardly to fling their vitriolic weapons unless they can hide behind a screen.

This is an arms race that has to stop.

Recently, my husband and I were on a motorcycle trip out west and, because of an unfortunate collision between a bug and my ear, we ended up having to swing by the local hospital in Cody, Wyoming. On the front door of the clinic was a sign I’ll never forget: “Check Your Weapons at the Door.” A bit extreme for a hospital, but not so extreme for life.

We need to check our weapons – our words -- at the door; like taking responsibility for what we say. I’m afraid we treat words like I cook spaghetti: throw it against the wall and see what sticks. Sometimes we just throw out words and see what sticks. But unlike spaghetti, words always stick. They stick and we can’t take them back. 

I’m sure we’d like to. It’s probably the one time in life we wish we had autocorrect; that convenient excuse when you text something super-fast, then you read what you sent and it says crazy stuff that has nothing to do with what you meant. Sadly, there’s no autocorrect excuse in life. Words stick and we can’t take them back.

We might also consider shutting up. In my prior life as a trial lawyer I had a case where a judge sanctioned a large commercial bank for sending out inappropriate dunning notices. After presenting several hours of testimony about why the giant mainframe could not be prevented from spitting out these notices, the judge leaned over the bench and asked, “Well, why don’t you just unplug it?”

Sometimes we simply need to unplug our mouths and listen. It’s easier said than done. We love to tell others what we think, to lecture about what is right and wrong, to weigh in and teach the world all the things it needs to know. Ironic given the old saying: We teach what we need to learn most.

Recently I opened a fortune cookie which offered this reading: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” Words are just a part of a conversation. A person’s heart speaks right along with those words; it speaks through their eyes, their facial expression, their body language, and the actual pitch and tone of their voice. But we’ll never hear it unless we unplug our mouths and listen.

Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that our words can change the world. Recently, I sat with a family member who was about to have surgery. Our doctor was upbeat, positive, encouraging, and calming. He put both of us at ease. Sadly, our suite mate behind the separating curtain had a different doctor, who came in and offered these first words: “This is the most painful surgery I do and you are going to hate me for months after this.” His words hit like a sledge hammer.

With every word we speak, we are changing the world. The question is: are we changing it for the better or for the worse? I suggest we start our own arms control. Let’s unplug our mouths and take responsibility for what we say. Let’s change the world for the better by checking our weapons, our words at the door.

This blog is based on a sermon given at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.   

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