Speaking With Grace

In my last post I talked about how Michael Gerson characterizes the state of our public discourse today: “nasty, shallow, personal, vile, vindictive, graceless, classless, bullying, ugly, crass and simplistic. . . .” It all spells “the triumph of the boors.” This is not the talk of a great nation, Gerson contends, but rather “a sign that greatness of purpose and character is slipping way.”

But I wake up this morning pondering that I violated my own goal this year to watch for the good news cropping out in our world. All of this stuff is bad news. I sort of indulged in the graceless speech I was condemning. Though I feel the problem acutely, I participated in the kind of ugly, vile culture I so detest.

And it got me thinking: What would grace-filled speech sound like?

Well, we might begin with higher standards of eloquence. And where does eloquence come from? Though there are notable exceptions, I believe eloquence grows out of good character. It’s the notion that good fruit comes from healthy trees. Something rotten at the core will not produce anything beautiful. It takes a lot of practice to develop eloquence of speech, but it all starts with the hard work of character formation.

We might also ask for speech that suggests some depth of thinking and reflection. In my experience, great speakers spend a lot of time in the study: reading, writing, thinking. Good speech requires good thought. Good language requires extensive exposure to people who have used beautiful words. Read great writers. They can help us become good speakers. Reading and reflection and practice at writing help us to speak with confidence. Good speech is never arrogant, but it is strong and confident, authentic, genuine. Good speaking requires a lot of time in the study.

We might also notice that good speech requires self-reflection. We don’t like the sound of flip, off-the-cuff, trite, cute. We don’t like arrogance at all. We want to hear speech that feels as if someone has spent time sizing up one’s place in the world. We want speech that sounds like the speaker knows for certain he or she is not the center of the universe.

Good speech will never inflict pain on others. My mother always taught me that words can wound. She demanded we never call anyone a liar. We need to learn restraint when it comes to hurting someone. We must call ourselves sharply against inflicting pain. There is a kind of bleeding that floats about in the air these days. This is unacceptable. Assume the best in others, and then turn off the pain-inflicting factor. Turn it upside down. Speak kindly. Such a shift will show up in our speech.

Speak as if you are talking face to face. I remember when email first got started. The distance this new tool allowed us from the person we addressed also allowed us to get nasty. It was easy. It was kind of exhilarating at first. Twitter and the likes are the maturing of just this kind of nastiness. I suspect most of this would not happen face to face. Good speech assumes a real person is listening.

Speak briefly. Don’t get too full of yourself. Lincoln’s great Gettysburg Address took less than three minutes and yet sits as one of the great speeches of our history. I am trying to learn better how to count my words when writing or speaking and pare them down. Things can always be cut.

Finally, good speech is humble. This one is essential for me, though of course I don’t always practice it. I am not a relativist. I believe there is something called truth. But I am equally certain that no one has a corner on the truth. Speak humbly. Speak as if you are ready to learn something new. Humble speech is respective of others, respective of the truth. Tone it down when it comes to assertive proclamations. Let’s clean out the arrogance of our lives. This will definitely show up in our speech.

I am talking here not just for those who occupy a podium, but for everyone. We all speak. Might it be possible to start talking more softly, with more grace, with more care, yes, with more humility? Might we try to make sure everything we say builds up someone instead of tearing down? Might we also use our speech to build up our society? All of this seems a good starting point for cleaning out the vileness polluting our discourse these days. Something’s got to be done. Maybe how we speak can make a difference. It’s sure worth a try, isn’t it?