I just did something that I have done countless times in my life: I wrote a letter – an email, in this case – that I will probably never send. My email is in response to one I received today that is, at best, thoughtless – at worst, rude. Neither thoughtlessness nor rudeness has ever been a crime, but for the majority of my life, I have sensed that most of us in civilized society know that words have power, and once uttered or written, that force is unleashed - for better or worse.
Words still have power today, but everything we once knew about truth seems to be evaporating. New terms like “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts” now swirl around us like thick smoke, causing us to question even our most straightforward perceptions of time, space, and events, as if absolutely everything in the universe is merely an opinion. Spontaneous outrage is in fashion and we are frequently warned not to take anything too literally. A new day has dawned, and I wish it were just a bad dream.
The reason I write letters and hold onto them is simple. I know that whatever I am feeling after an affront needs to be articulated somehow, but my first response is a reaction, not a decision. I cannot think of too many occasions when, with the perspective of some space and a deep breath, a situation does not appear clearer, less alarming or different in scope. Once in a while, a strong response is indeed required but before pulling the trigger, I always weigh the cost and research the facts. Holding people accountable is crucial, but expensive. You have to know it’s worth the capital.
We all say things we later wish we hadn’t. Few of us are born diplomats and there are times when it’s necessary to retract things we have spewed in haste or in error. That process of walking back something we’ve said is, to use the popular expression, a lot like the putting toothpaste back in the tube – you waste a bunch, it makes a big mess, and it requires a very delicate funnel. But what’s the alternative? To defend those words at all costs? To fabricate another scenario to justify the ill-chosen statements? To divert and distract with more confusion? I’d rather spill some toothpaste any day.
Life is complicated and we can’t always make the perfect choices or know all the answers. But we can continue to honor integrity, learn from our mistakes and take responsibility for our decisions. We must expect and demand this of each other. Without these standards, we are lost.
As we continue to try and sort things out – individually and as a society – I will keep writing responses that may or may not be sent, and today’s reaction will rest in my Drafts file until tomorrow. We’ll see how it hits me then.