I studied linguistics in college, specifically conversational analysis, which partially led to my deep conversion as I grew to appreciate the mystery and miracle of language, its power to both bind and repel us; its enormous beauty; the way saying something makes it so ('I promise').
God spoke the world into being, and Jesus is sometimes known as the Word of God, and Christianity itself has been carried on through the centuries mainly through written and spoken words. As a priest I have become utterly convinced that love and peace can be achieved through the grace of God, and by tapping into this through our own daily practice of holy conversation.
How hard this can be to practice, though, especially this time of year, when divisive politics are in the air and disparate families and friends are gathered for celebrations. Our words can become weapons or shields rather than warm havens, and our relationships can wither or explode rather than grow, all because of our words and how we share them.
It seems that many difficult conversations fall into two camps: either they are aimed at offense ('those jerks who...'), or offense is taken whether the aim was there or not ('how dare you say...'), and round and round we go. Social media might make this worse, though I am personally convinced it just reaches more people (which may indeed be worse).
At a time of year when we especially focus on peace and love, and at a time when we may be significantly stressed by time, money, and the company of those with whom we disagree, I think we have a call to be mindful of the power of peace we wield with our own words, chosen carefully.
Some holy-day conversational observations:
Listen. Even when the words are written, it is possible to really try to hear what the other person is saying. So often there is a tendency to assume that because a person belongs to a certain political party/cultural group/branch of the family, etc., we know what they are going to say and what they really mean by it. Is this really true? I imagine that much of the time, we have more in common with the speaker than we think, and even if we vehemently disagree with their position on something, we still share our humanity, maybe even some DNA. 'Pass the potatoes' or 'you look nice tonight' can mean many, many things, after all, and if we are really listening, we may hear something new.
Feel. Sometimes it seems we are so good at sharing our feelings that we bypass the opportunity to actually feel them first! This can lead to sharing them indiscriminately in ways that cause undue, or undeserved, pain to others. Simply taking a few minutes to identify and acknowledge our own feelings can lead to wise choices about whether, where, and how to share them. 'That made me angry' is a great thing to admit to ourself. Then we can perhaps decide to share this, if we feel it could further a conversation. 'I feel angry that you said X' is much more likely to lead to holy conversation than 'you are mean/thoughtless/stupid, etc.', being that it focuses on our own feelings and not on labeling/judging others. And sometimes we may acknowledge our own feelings privately and decide it's best not to share.
Focus. I firmly believe that 99% of all relationships are going on in our head. It's all about how we perceive ourselves and others, and the beauty of this is, we can change our perception. If I see you as a beloved child of God, and if I see myself that way, then it is really hard to be hostile, even if we disagree. And so I can focus on my own feelings/words/actions, and share accordingly, even when things get heated. 'I can't hear you when you speak that way' is one line I find very helpful, especially when someone is yelling or they are using language I find offensive. I am not telling them to stop doing it, I am admitting I can't converse with them under the circumstances. I don't say this to try and change them, but to keep myself from trying to match their tone or tenor. I can peacefully refuse to participate in certain kinds of conversations. If they persist, I can honestly and gently say, 'I do not understand', and leave it at that.
Give. 'Thank you for sharing that,' is something we can say when someone offers us their feelings on a matter, whether we agree with them or not. I find this particularly helpful when someone is upset with me and tells me about it. I may be hurt by this, I may have a different perspective, and yet they have taken the risk of telling me what theirs is. Before I say, 'that's not what I meant,' I can simply say, 'thank you.'
Each of us has so much power to change the world through our own words. I never cease to be amazed by the miracles brought by words of peace, especially in conflict. May all your holiday conversations be bright!