Because we grew up in South Dakota and Wisconsin, we know what can happen to folks this time of year. February may be the shortest month of the year, but it sure seems like the longest. People get restless cooped up inside, complaining about dry skin and having to wear too many layers of clothes, while outside, the cold, wet weather just won't go away. As the month drags on, the irritability index rises dramatically.
According to an old folk saying, a good word melts the cold of February while a bad word can freeze the month of June. Unfortunately, at this time of year, the bad words often get the better of the good ones. In the Bible (James 3:5-6), we read: "So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire." How easy it is for our tongues to set blazes here and there. We criticize our spouse. We gossip about our neighbor. We snap at the store clerk. We get sarcastic with the telemarketers. We know that we shouldn't use out tongues to lash out at others, but it just seems to happen.
In the Benedictine monastic tradition, there is a spiritual practice called keeping custody of your tongue. The idea is to consciously pay attention to what you say at all times. It's okay to speak your mind and even to express anger, but you must do so with an awareness that harsh words can be very harmful.
Start with a prayer in the morning: "Dear Lord, please help me today to use my tongue in your service by uttering words of love, kindness, praise, and encouragement. Help me to take custody of my tongue so I do not utter words of hate, disrespect, criticism, gossip, or slander."
When we began to work with this practice, we were shocked to discover how difficult it is not to say negative things about others. The real challenge comes in private moments. It's not enough to be nice in public or with a group; we must also take custody of our tongues when we are alone or talking to close friends. That is often when any tendency to backbite or make fun of others surfaces.
We have found it helpful to check in with each other at meal times to see how we are doing. Sometimes when we catch ourselves in an act of verbal misconduct, we use a gesture to signify that we are zipping up our mouths. Or we use images to remind us of the impact of our words. We imagine that when we speak an unkind word, a foul odor comes out of our mouth, whereas when we praise someone, a sweet fragrance is dispensed. We see that putting people down sets up pockets of pain and resentment in the world whereas speaking positively of others establishes networks of confidence that enrich life.
Keeping custody of your tongue is not an easy practice. Be patient with yourself. The only way to break a habit of careless and harmful words is to work on it day by day with honest intention.
Just consider the consequences of not paying attention to what you say. There is old Jewish story about this, which is dramatized in the "Forgiveness" episode of the Spiritual Literacy DVD. In a small community, one fellow is known as the town gossip. He has thoughtlessly told and retold some stories that have caused others to feel pain and shame. When his rabbi confronts him about the damage he has done, the man is shocked and sorry for being so hurtful. He asks what he can do to make amends.
The rabbi tells him to take some pillows out into a field, to cut them open, and to shake all the feathers out into the field. The man thanks the rabbi and runs off to do what he said. Later, he returns and reports that the wind has taken the feathers to all parts of the field. The rabbi tells him this is good and now he must go back to the field and collect all the feathers.
The gossip knows that is an impossible task. Hurtful words once spoken cannot be retrieved. It's better to take custody of your tongue in the first place.