The mass murder of 26 women and elementary school children last week in Newtown, Conn., is so unspeakably horrific and painfully fresh — especially for parents and those who loved the women — that thinking about the event, let alone writing about it, is difficult. For most that is.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has been quoted by the Huffington Post and other media outlets as saying this past weekend that the shootings were "no surprise" given America’s "systematic removal of God from schools."
As cold hearted as his comments could be taken at the complete, incomprehensible and horrendous surprise this tragedy was to all of us, he would have been better served had he kept his mouth shut — or his pen capped — even though he may have a point.
There are lots of things happening in America today that result — at least partially — from being loosened from the anchor of religion in our lives, and therefore a common understanding as a people of what is right and wrong. Whether Newtown’s perpetrator is a symptom of this problem is yet to be seen.
But even nationally recognized opinion mongers like Huckabee who are bright, experienced, educated leaders, and probably are actually decent human beings utter things with no sense of timing. They can be loud-mouthed, apparently clueless knuckleheads (as an opinion columnist I’m not immune from this failing myself). They say or write things in the emotion of the moment that are out of place, later regretting what they’ve written or said.
But once the words are freed, there is no taking them back, especially today. We should heed the old warning many of us heard from our mothers: "If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all." But that courtesy is just so passé.
Nonetheless, Huckabee would have been better served — as well as those families suffering over the unimaginable loss of their women and children would also have been better served — to keep his opinions to himself. At least until the dead are buried.
As a result of Hollywood, President Abraham Lincoln has received, of late, a resurgence in popularity. This is true even though he has been seen (not in his lifetime, but afterward becoming a popular martyr following his assassination) as one of our best by many — if not by states’ rights enthusiasts and Confederate sympathizers who still decry his suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus some 150 years ago.
But regardless of our sympathies, we could all learn something very important from Lincoln that will help us in our daily interactions with each other. It is a communication technique that opinion mongers like Huckabee — really all of us — should make a routine in our own lives.
Don’t make the phone call, don’t send the email or tweet, don’t open up your mouth until you’ve had the chance to think about what you’re about to say. In Marine Corps lingo: "Don’t put your mouth in gear before you engage your brain."
In today’s parlance, "the tongue" includes voice messages, emails and tweets as well as the written word on websites, in the blogosphere, and in the traditional media. The potential adverse impact of failing to "hold one’s tongue" applies regardless of the medium in which the words are transmitted. That little bit of muscle mostly hidden in our mouths is by far the world’s most dangerous weapon.
In Lincoln’s days, letters sent via the postal service were the primary means of communication for the average citizen, including the president who was more an average citizen in the 1860s then he is today. Lincoln was leading a divided nation engaged in a bloody civil war, with no guarantee that the nation he was leading could survive. The emotion was so thick, you might imagine, that it could be cut with a knife in virtually every decision that he made.
Lincoln would write a letter. Letters whose content contained more than perfunctory administrative matters and had even the possibility of expressing emotion were set aside to be reread the next day. After a night of contemplation of their contents, those letters would often be balled up and thrown away to be rewritten with less emotion — rethought to be written more appropriately given the importance, seriousness or travesty of the situation about which Lincoln was writing.
We could all benefit by adopting Lincoln’s communication (or rather his delaying communication) technique. And our lives would be much better if we lived by the following related (author unattributed) advice: "Watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, for it will become your destiny."
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.