“I am thankful for the difficult people in my life. They have shown me exactly who I don’t want to be.”

Have you ever delivered or received a ‘left-handed’ compliment? Something along the lines of “you weren’t at all what I expected” or “I’d never guess you’re that old!” or ‘that dress looks great on you – so slimming!’ – positive at first, yet somehow includes a punch to the face?  I’m confident I’ve delivered a few of my own zingers from the left, and I try not to dwell on the underlying messages of the tilted compliments I’ve received. I usually fail. We all probably do – because, dangit! – we crave approval and acceptance. At the same time, we grow increasingly interested in our right to speak our minds – with impunity. Ironically, this posting proves my point. Like Mrs. Bob Cratchit, who reluctantly toasts Ebenezer Scrooge when she would rather tell him off in Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol, I use my blog to give you a “piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope [you’d] have a good appetite for it.” But I’m noticing lately, that, just like a left-handed compliment, too many of our words miss the mark we ought to be aiming for…

Mind you, the left-handed deliverer generally is quite a crack shot. It’s not that her aim is poor. Her marksmanship rarely encounters an equal. She fires off a round with skill and precision –a perfect blend of apparent praise “sugar[ing] o’er the devil himself “with her critical condescension.  (I’m nearly incapable of not throwing in a Hamlet reference apparently.) She silences the insult with kindness, delaying the realization of what she really means by her words. She speaks with a smile on her lips of course, but the gleam doesn’t reach her eyes until the offense she intends registers.

When I began my real teaching life, I thought I was hired for what I could impart to my students. Instead, the job was given to me for the lessons I needed to learn. The life-changer for me centered in this: Words matter.  Words minister either life or death. They build up, or they tear down. As a word addict – worse, as a word addict with a penchant for one-upsmanship in wordsmithing – I have ministered death rather than life too many times too count. A well-crafted insult disguised as encouragement – you know, the ‘left-handed compliment’ – ministers death. And it turns out the receiver isn’t the only one who suffers. The deliverer damages her own heart with every clever disparagement.

Turns out, the webbernets – Facebook and Pinterest and Twitter to name the trifecta – inspire the sort of phrasing I’m talking about. Nearly every day I find brief but pithy phrases (usually mimicking a greeting card) designed to elevate the self-righteous and denigrate those who evidently deserve the insult couched in cunning.  Sometimes I find myself laughing, but more often, I recognize the damage those words can do. I’m trying harder (and still failing regularly) to remember that hard lesson about words. Ministering death or life. That’s my choice, every time I use words.

Take another look at this: “I am thankful for the difficult people in my life. They have shown me exactly who I don’t want to be.” A left-hander if I’ve ever seen one.


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