Monday, January 17, 2005


The other day I was working out at the gym, grinding away on an elliptical trainer. On the machine next to me was a female soldier, whose steady stream of foul language caused me to cringe internally. I am accustomed to being around men who swear all the time, but for some reason (perhaps a cultural expectation of how a “lady” ought to behave?), this woman’s words really got my attention. I was reminded that although they may “just be words,” their careless or unmindful use can cause unintended offense, pain, and suffering.

This episode reminded me of when my wife was pregnant with our son, while I was a flight instructor in a Navy jet training squadron. In anticipation of the birth of our first child, I had decided to stop swearing so much. I wanted to reverse the effects of having been in the military for my entire adult life. This personal effort to clean up my own language made me very aware of how the people around me talked, and I noticed that there was one other instructor pilot in particular who used the “f word” very frequently. I have to give him credit for creativity, for he was able to employ this Anglo-Saxon monosyllable (with minor variations) as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. One day he was briefing and leading a flight I was also part of, and during his brief I started counting how many times he used this word. I had to quit at 50, because it was so frequent and so distracting that I wasn’t paying attention to the brief!

Over seven years later, I am still struggling to limit the presence of these crude words in my vocabulary. I have been reminded on several occasions that “little pitchers have big ears.” When my son was about 18 months old, I was walking along a street in Old Town Yuma, Arizona with him on my shoulders. We were approaching a “glorietta” or traffic circle, and the only traffic on the street was a truck traveling parallel to us. When the driver reached the circle, he should have gone around it clockwise to make his left turn; however, presumably because there was no other traffic, he cut across directly to the left. Observing this, I commented under my breath, “nice job, jackass.” At which point my dear little son shouted at the top of his lungs, in his clear, piping voice, “jackass, jackass!” As if that weren’t bad enough, the driver’s window was down and as his head snapped our way in astonishment, all I could do was wave and grin sheepishly.

As a Plebe at the Naval Academy, I was required to memorize the 24 verses of the “Laws of the Navy.” The second half of the 17th verse reads:

They prosper who burn in the morning,
The letters they wrote overnight.

The modern equivalent of this admonition is to leave outgoing e-mail in the “Drafts” folder for a few hours or days after writing, and then carefully consider the words used and their effect on the reader prior to clicking the “Send” button. Modern communication technology now allows us to offend, inflame, and hurt each other almost instantaneously – even from halfway around the planet.

I experienced this (on the receiving end) recently, when I received an e-mail from a first-year seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry, the UU seminary in Berkeley. After having been given the URL for my weblog by a mutual friend, she had read some of my posts and written me with some questions. She wondered how a person could believe in “UU values,” such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and still be in the military, whose ultimate purpose is killing. This is an excellent question, one that I have pondered almost ceaselessly for the last three years!

The main thing that struck me about this message was her use of language. I found her approach confrontational when she asked me to “justify my career as part of an organization whose purpose is killing” and labeled me a “career militarist.” To her credit, she realized that I might take her approach to be rude or provoking, and apologized in advance if I took it that way. Perhaps this was one of those messages that should have stayed in the Drafts folder for a while.
I read her e-mail several times, trying to keep an open mind. I decided that although my initial reaction was to take offense, my mindful response would be to lift up the effect of her choice of words, and to ask her for more information about her background and perspective so I could mindfully choose my words to answer her questions. This give and take has resulted in a very enjoyable dialogue, and introduced me to a wonderful new friend.

From swearing soldiers and sailors to swearing toddlers, from Plebe rates to e-mail, lessons in mindful communication are everywhere. All we need to do is pay attention.


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