One of my friends at church told me last Sunday about a sign she saw in front of a local church. It said: A closed mouth gathers no foot. I would do well to have that tattooed inside my eyelids or in some other highly visible place. At the risk of using another cliché, I tend to put my mouth in motion before putting my brain in gear.
I’m really pretty quiet, listening and responding more often than offering my opinion. But when I feel strongly about something, I say it. The funny thing is that if you say something with enough conviction, people are apt to listen, assume you’ve thought through what you said, and assume that you know what you’re talking about. This can be especially troubling when you spend a lot of time around caregivers and other people who are going through a difficult time.
When we were in Florida, we went to Sunday school with a wonderful group of people. Everyone was warm, loving, and accepting – or almost everyone. There was one woman who never seemed to warm up to me. “Jill” was cordial, but just barely, and she always declined invitations to go to lunch after church or meet for dinner. Her husband and David became good friends anyway, and one day he told David what was going on.
“One of the first times we met, the subject of nursing homes came up, and Linda made a comment about people who ‘warehouse’ their loved ones in nursing homes. I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, but Jill was offended. Don’t tell Linda what I said, and please don’t say anything to Jill. I just wanted you to know.”
Of course, David told me – we don’t keep that kind of information from each other – and I felt really badly about it. I don’t remember the conversation clearly, but I think it was shortly after we met, before I knew that Jill had cared for her mother until her death, and that toward the end, her mother had been in a nursing home. I also didn’t know that she was at that time caring for her mother-in-law and that they were struggling with the decision of whether to place her in a home or not. My comment came from what I was going through: the uncertainty of whether I was up to the new task I had taken on of caring for Mom and Dad in my home, the fear that I would one day be faced with the decision of placing them, the guilt of not having paid enough attention to my grandmother when she was in a nursing home. But to Jill, my words were an indictment directed at her.
During my single-again years before I met David I sang for a while with the Rich-Tones, a ladies barbershop chorus out of Richardson, Texas. The chorus is part of Sweet Adelines International, and we went to regional and national competitions each year. Our director schooled us not only in the vocal arts but also in how to conduct ourselves at the contests. I’ll never forget one of her monologues:
“You’ll hear lots of other choruses and quartets at this event. Some will be good and some will not. Be generous with your praise about the good ones, but if you have something negative to say, go to your hotel room, close and lock the door, turn the shower on full blast along with the TV and the radio, bury your face in the pillow, and whisper it. You never know who might be listening.”
At the first rehearsal after we got home, we had a sharing time during which we told stories about what had happened over the weekend. One girl told this story:
“You were right when you told us you never know who’s listening. After Judy’s quartet sang, I was riding the shuttle back to the hotel. I was going on and on about how well they did, and I said I could listen to Judy sing all day. About that time a voice piped up from the back of the bus: ‘That’s what a mother likes to hear!’”
You never know who’s listening, and I would add that you never know what has been or currently is going on in their life. Although we were never close, Jill and I eventually became casual friends and discussed our caregiving problems and successes. If she were not such a nice person, I might think she took some satisfaction in the struggle I had with the decision to move Mom and Dad into assisted living.
Going back to the title of this post, how do you avoid putting your foot in your mouth? I think Solomon said it best:
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. Proverbs 17:28