Friday, November 20, 2015

A Man (or Woman) of Few Words

“He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. Even a fool when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” (Prov. 17:27-28)

The man or woman who knows the most says the least—so says God. If this is the case, would it not be true that the man or woman who knows the least says the most? An observation we’re quick to apply to others more often than ourselves. Some may just naturally be more sparing of words than others, but few of us fall into that category, it would seem to me. No, from all appearances, a great host of us (and I do mean us) are not blessed with this natural inclination. On the contrary, for most of us, if one word, sentence, story, or lecture, is good, two (or more) is better!

         Proverbs has much to say about the tone and timing of our speech, but, as with other things in life, you can get too much of even a good thing; and I, who have had a love affair with words for many years now, need to be reminded regularly that it’s possible to handle a truth or an idea so much that there is a danger of it becoming, if not worn out, at least, wearing on others. Verses like these in Proverbs that are themselves so succinct, provide a warning for people like me. They are proof positive that words are effective, very often, in direct proportion to their economical use. Real wisdom is portable, able to be carried handily through life.

I’ve heard the first half of verse twenty-eight paraphrased something like this: “It’s better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt!” And that’s true. We are only considered fools for the foolish things we say, not the foolish thoughts we have.

There is a companion verse to these found in Proverbs 29:11, where we read, “A fool uttereth all his mind: but the wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.” In other words, there are things that definitely need to be said, but a wise man will keep it to himself till later. After what? Any number of things. Perhaps there are things that should not be said till passions have cooled, other events have transpired, or possibly, even not till after a death. Hold it in, says Solomon, like something that is trying very hard to escape (like a rising, offensive burp, perhaps?). Even if you have to bite your tongue, clench your teeth, or put your hand over your mouth—whatever it takes—hold your peace “till afterwards.”

One of the great benefits of talking less is that it gives us the opportunity to hear more. We should remind ourselves often that there is a wealth of knowledge we will never know as long we spend all our time telling what we do know. It would be good to ask ourselves at the end of each day, “What did I learn from someone else today?” Sadly, many of us would have to admit we never gave anyone else the chance to teach us.

These words, like so many that I write, stare back at me accusingly from the computer screen. I share them with you, not from a lofty height, but from a lower deck. But they are true, all the same, and they need to be said. Remember the little children’s rhyme:
A wise old owl sat in an oak;
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Why aren't we all like that wise old bird?

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