What are Your Words Worth?

By Donna Lee Schillinger

Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel. Proverbs 20:15

But I tell you that women will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. Matthew 12:36

I used to carpool four preadolescent girls to dance lessons once a month, which made for a very interesting study in conversation. One of the girls was so chatty that I’m convinced it must have been physically uncomfortable for her to be quiet. A second would pipe in whenever the first was catching her breath, and the other two hardly said anything at all.
The fascinating thing was that the extremely chatty girl rarely said anything interesting or of substance. She had an ability to fill air time with completely empty clamor of which she seemed to have a limitless supply. She said once that she wanted to become an orthodontist, but I thought she was better suited to a career as a radio personality.
To be fair, she was entertaining. She often blurted out bizarre word combinations and she even interrupted herself with random musical clips from popular songs or her own words set to music.
I, on the other hand, have never been a very good conversationalist and that has made for many an awkward social moment. I’ve analyzed it thoroughly and figured out that I’m no good at talking about nothing in particular, and that a great deal of conversation is about nothing in particular. I do love to dig in deep in a philosophical or even political topic though. In fact, one of my very favorite things to do is have good, thorough conversation around a dinner table with intelligent people.
But like a lot of people, I know a little about a lot and nothing at all about some things! For instance, I know nothing of mechanics, engineering, higher math and quantum physics, and I have the good sense to limit my contribution in conversations pertaining to any of those topics to questions only. But if someone opens the can of worms about the electric car, I’m all over it. Why? Because I have seen the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car.” With one good source under my belt, I practically consider myself certified to converse intelligently on the topic. I don’t have any real knowledge on the topic – just a summary of facts that was passed on to me in the form of a movie over a two-hour period some weeks, months or even years ago. And yet I spew!
I actually had an engaging conversation on the electric car at church just a week or so ago with two other Christian brothers. In truth, none of us knew much about the topic and yet, as often seems the case, we didn’t care to learn from each other; instead, we each wanted to assert an opinion based on the smidgen of information we each could contribute to the topic.
One of the brothers believed hydrogen to be the alternative fuel solution. Oh, now, I knew that wouldn’t work because I had read a Newsweek article on hydrogen fuels and the electric car movie also had commented on how that technology has some serious issues to work out – it’s at least another decade away from being ready to mass market. That was enough to quiet that brother. Then the other chimes in saying that we’re literally crapping out the solution to our energy woes, and he begins to explain in very little detail how if only municipalities would invest in the infrastructure for a generating plant, the technology already exists to take methane gas from sewers and convert it to energy. He maintained that a city could power itself with energy to spare on nothing more than the gas emitted from its sewers. Fascinating. Could he tell me more? No. That was the extent of his knowledge.
To converse for half an hour based on what you’ve learned from a book or movie meets this definition of knowledge: “the fact or condition of being aware of something.” But is this the kind of knowledge our proverb calls a rare jewel? No. The dictionary defines that knowledge as “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience,” and “the circumstance or condition of apprehending trust or fact through reasoning.”
Now, not that it’s a weighty subject or anything, but if you’ve ever tripped and fallen in the midst of a group of people, you have a real and true knowledge of the humiliation that comes with such a fall. If ever you hap along a conversation about the feelings one has just after a public fall, you have something significant to contribute. However, you can cheapen your significant contribution by exaggerating your point or diluting it with too many words.
Let’s take a more serious topic. What about Islam? Every American knows something of Islam if they have paid the slightest bit of attention to the news since September 11, 2001. Does the kind of knowledge entitle us to converse on it? Of course, even if we know nothing about a subject we can speculate and ask questions. We may even have a fact such as a statistic that we can contribute to the conversation.
I’ve read the autobiography of Malcolm X and seen the movie and quite a few other movies with Islam as a theme. I’ve visited a Muslim nation and stayed a week in the home of Muslims; I’ve had Muslims friends and I even dated a self-pronounced “bad Muslim” for about three months (something I don’t recommend). I used to collaborate on a work project with a Muslim and for three years I worked a block away from a mosque. I might have more first-hand familiarity with Islam than most Americans. Yet, despite my “credentials,” some of which I didn’t bother to mention, anything I could contribute to a conversation on Islam would have to be prefaced with, “In my limited experience, I’ve found…” All I know from personal experience and have read and seen about Islam is still woefully lacking to qualify me to say anything truly knowledgeable on the subject and so much less to pass judgment on Islamic religion or culture.
To be able to contribute some rare gem on the topic of Islam, I would think I would need, at a minimum, to read the Koran, and perhaps an Islamic commentary on it so that I could understand it from their perspective, and have much broader personal exchange with a sampling of Muslims – yes, more than one person or even one family. Can you imagine how misguided a foreigner to our country might be if they met only you and from that experience made generalizations about all Americans?
That reminds me of a popular stereotype about Americans that I encountered almost everywhere I went when I was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Ecuadorians thought that everything Americans eat comes already made in a can or box. All we have to do is add water and cook. To someone like me who really enjoys the culinary tasks of peeling, roasting and pureeing fresh pumpkin to make pie and cleaning and roasting the seeds for a snack, that seems like a ridiculous effigy and more like ignorance about Americans than knowledge of Americans. Yet there are other evenings in my household where such an impression of Americans could be wholly substantiated. The point is that it takes more than one experience, one reading, one viewing, one relationship to make true knowledge.
What are you talking about? Are you filling the air with random musical clips and nonsense phrases that have no value other than mindless entertainment? Are you engaging in thought-provoking conversation on weighty subjects about which you know precious little?
The Bible says to make our agreements a simple “yes” and our disagreements a simple “no,” and to avoid godless chatter (Matt. 5:36 and 2 Timothy 2:16). This doesn’t mean we have to shut up completely, but what about spending some of that spare time we’ve generated by refraining in idle conversation to actually acquire some knowledge gained through experience? Then, when the time is right, we may have a rare jewel to offer in conversation.

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