How important are words? Can they lead us down the road to perdition? Can they send us to hell in a handbasket? Some legislators have always thought so. In the heart of the Bible Belt where I grew up, the battle against alcohol lasted many decades after Prohibition was repealed. Mississippi had the strictest rules against the sale and distribution of alcohol, but restaurants in Tennessee were not allowed to sell alcoholic beverages (except beer) until 1968. Most restauranteurs probably did not mind. They sold “set-ups”, glasses of ice cubes or simply empty glasses, and you brought your own bottle. Having to put something in the glass would have reduced the profit margin! So, how did you come by a bottle of liquor? There were state licensed liquor stores, but they were not allowed to be called liquor stores. The sign outside had to read “package store”. Taverns and bars, like restaurants, were not allowed to serve anything but beer, and they too had to operate under an assumed name. They could not be called bars or taverns, but “lounges”. People commonly called them “beer joints,” a reflection of the general disregard in which such places were held.
When I moved to St. Louis in the late 1970’s, I noticed a lot of churches were advertising a “social” or, more curiously, a “quilt social”. Some of these quilt socials took place several times a week. How many quilts did people need for Chrissakes? After a few months, I learned that “social” was code for bingo. Gambling of any sort was illegal. Although it is now legal to advertise bingo in Missouri, hardly anyone does. The casinos have swallowed up the customer base. And, of course, they must still be called Riverboat Casinos, even though the gambling does not take place on a real boat anymore. It is still possible to pretend that gambling does not actually taint the state of Missouri. Gambling is a vice passing by from out of state.
In writing this I do not want to dismiss the very real dangers posed by alcohol and gambling or be insensitive to the pain that addiction has caused many families. I have not had a drink in sixteen years because I know the danger is real. I am simply not sure that our word games from the past reduced our addiction rate by even a fraction of a point. Yet in other ways I believe our words really do have power. Quite a number of people have said to me that course and insulting language in public seems to be growing. Some people blame this year’s unseasonably personal political contests for this. Others see social media as the culprit: Facebook and Twitter allow us to vent without having to look anyone in the face while we are doing it. Some see it as a symptom of a growing anxiety about the future, while others attribute it to a general deterioration of manners in society. Perhaps the correct answer is “all of the above”. What we do know is that crude and rude language is contagious. And sometimes this season of giving and doing for others brings out the worst in people. This time of year, people are doing everything they are always doing; but they are also shopping, decorating, partying, preparing, and rushing to get things done before the holidays, and maybe even throwing in extra charity work. There are crowds everywhere, because everyone else is trying to do the same things at the same time. And then there’s that chirpy and happy Christmas music that is always playing in the background. When you are in a bad mood and rushing around trying to get things done, there is nothing more irritating than joy and happiness.
So, here’s a suggestion for the last three weeks of the year. Try to make life a little better for the strangers you encounter. Give yourself more time. You know there will be delays, traffic jams, and lines at the checkout counter. If you are waiting in line, focus on making small talk with the person next to you rather than just glaring at your watch or your phone; smile and say “thank you” to those who are serving you and maybe comment on how hard they are working to keep up. If someone is trying to squeeze into your lane, let them. In the great book of life, that three seconds it costs you are not going to make much difference. If someone at a store or on the road says something to you that is rude and blames you for some perceived slight, try saying “I’m sorry”. It is not going to ruin your reputation if once in a while you accept responsibility for something you did not do or did not intend to do; and it might even cause the other person to consider that he or she may have spoken in haste. Christ came to bring peace on earth. Maybe we can help Christ out just a little bit, by being peaceable in our part of the earth. God chose to become one of us because God wanted to experience life from our perspective. That might actually be the key to peace on earth: if we all tried to see life from the other person’s point of view before we opened our mouth.