One of the best words of advice I’ve received as a blogger is this: “Hold back, Trevin. You don’t have to weigh in on every controversial issue. Neither do you need to respond to every negative comment. Exercise restraint.”
That’s a good word, and it’s one I’ve heeded many times. When the blog world erupts in controversy over an issue, I often ask friends for counsel before entering the discussion. There’s a time to speak up, and there’s a time to hold back. Unfortunately, our world seems to know only of “speaking up.”
My family recently received a promotion from our cable company which gave us cable for six months. How nice to see the news channels again! I thought. A few days later, I was already exhausted from the war of words spilling from the television speakers into our living room. How did I ever watch this?
In the midst of the television commotion, one host stands out from the crowd. Larry King asks penetrating questions in a polite manner, but he never pretends to be unbiased. If you look at how he frames his questions, you can figure out his personal views rather quickly. Still, Larry is always respectful. When he has multiple guests, they don’t talk over one another. Larry doesn’t play the role of umpire between extremists on every side. He keeps the tone civil.
That’s probably why his ratings are down. People must prefer Jerry-Springer political shows that degenerate into a shouting match between sensationalist guests. So now, Larry is about to hang up his suspenders after more than 25 years on the air. Who will take his place? More than likely, he will be replaced with another fiery TV personality who chooses high-decibal guests – none of whom know the art of restraint.
Restraint is a lost virtue in contemporary American society.
But Trevin, you say. Aren’t there times we need to make our opinions known? Don’t we need to speak up? Of course. There are times we need to make our voices heard. There is a time for speech, even loud protest. Restraint is not always a virtue.
But most of us could benefit from the wisdom of timely restraint. Our problem isn’t that we are too quiet. No… we inhabit a world in which the dam of restraint has broken down, unleashing a flood of angry words. So now, the virtue of timely restraint is so uncommon that we don’t know what to do with it when we see it.
Take George W. Bush. Upon the release of his autobiography, the former president made the rounds on all the news channels to promote his book. Though he was vilified by people on both sides of the political aisle, Bush never once lashed out against his opponents. When asked about Obama’s constant criticism of his policies, Bush shrugged and said, “It’s a political tactic.” It was clear he didn’t take it personally and neither would he fight back. In his book, Bush writes compassionately about the anti-war protestors, some of which said unspeakable things about him and his family.
Reporters tried to goad Bush into a fight. Tell us what you think about Palin! Tell us what you really think about McCain. What do you say about the Tea Party and Obama? Each time, he resisted. “You’re trying to get me back in the swamp,” he said. He made it clear that he would not join the cacophony of competing voices. “I don’t think it’s good for the country,” he said. Perhaps we Americans should heed that word.
But didn’t Jesus lash out at his opponents? you say. Why do we have to bow before some idealistic code of civility? Good question. Yes, Jesus called his opponents snakes and vipers and whitewashed tombs. He even called King Herod a fox.
But I don’t think that we are emulate Jesus’ manner of discourse in every respect. Christ had one thing we don’t have: perfect knowledge. He could see into the hearts of his opponents. He alone had a God’s-eye view. His judgment was always right. Because we don’t have exhaustive knowledge, and because we can’t see into the hearts of people, Jesus tells us to “judge not” and to not call someone else “a fool.”
So I hope to follow the model of timely restraint, praying for the wisdom to know when to hold back and when to speak up. After all, I don’t want to be one of the people Jesus describes as surprised on the last day: surprised I was wrong when I thought for sure I was right.