I seem to have a faulty filter.
It is well established that I am an emotional and vocal person with a strong desire for affirmation and an apparent inability to suffer in silence. Those characteristics alone ought to be enough to sanctify my wife and children. But I have the additional quirk that my verbal filter was installed on the wrong end of my tongue. Instead of capturing the rubbish my brain produces before it exits my mouth, my filter is several seconds downstream, between my ears and heart. I hear what I’m spewing and my heart hurts, but it’s too late. My only hope is a pause in the outburst long enough for my heart to signal my brain to activate the emergency shut-off. Then I apologize, restart the system and begin again.
Most often, this defect shows itself in conversations with my bride. My temper is not vulgar or violent; instead it is pointed, sarcastic and self-righteous. With each reset, I resolve to listen, to understand, to give Jodi the benefit of the doubt and assume the best of her motivations and intentions—but my emotions outpace my will nearly every time.
What to do about this? Last spring, I resolved to strengthen my will with small, symbolic, intentional daily fasts: no snacks or desserts for those in need, a cold shower to strengthen my marriage—that sort of thing. But even with a regular weekly regimen, I struggled to maintain even these tiny sacrifices, and over the holidays, I fell away from them completely.
This week, I resolved to try again. I came up with a weekly rotation of small fasts and began practicing them. In addition, Jodi and I had a couple of frank conversations about the ways in which we escalate tensions between us by the things we assume and say (or don’t say). At least one of these conversations spilled over from an unfiltered outburst of mine, and I recalled the emphasis the Letter of James puts on controlling one’s tongue. I went to the source and found it to be even more emphatic than I remembered:
If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes. In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. – James 3:2-9
The first two lines struck me hardest from this fresh reading: The person who controls his mouth will control his whole body as well.
So I’m rethinking my approach: perhaps I need to focus on my speech to strengthen my will instead of the other way around. The best Lent I’ve experienced in recent history—perhaps ever—was a couple of years ago when I gave up sarcasm and snarkiness. Jodi and the kids were the judges and kept a visible, week-by-week tally of the number of times I lashed them with my tongue, even in jest. It seemed silly at the time, but in retrospect, it may have been spot-on.
Bridle your tongue, and your body will follow.
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Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.