In the parking lot at the funeral home where a celebration of life will be held for your coworker’s recently-deceased 103-year- old grandfather, you check that you have tissues, breath mints, sympathy card.
You riffle through your stack of laminated printouts you never leave home without—
the lists gleaned from Facebook and Twitter that guarantee you will never, ever, say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person.
You know the great-great granddaughter of the dearly departed is homeschooling her 11 children.
She is pregnant with #12 and adopting 7 children from a yet-to-be-named foreign nation.
Quickly, you scan
’8 Things Never to Tell a Homeschool Mother,’
‘Stuff You Don’t Say to a Pregnant Woman’
‘Which Questions do Large Families Hate the Most?’
trying to memorize the contents.
With sinking heart you also locate ’The 22 Most Insensitive Statements to Make to an Adoptive Family.’
You have recently lost 125 pounds and hope everyone at the celebration of life has read
‘Make Sure You never Say This to Someone who Recently Lost Enough Weight to Constitute Another Human Being’ while secretly hoping they ignore #5 on the list, which instructs them to not tell you how great you look.
You are at the bottom of the stack and still have not found the shiny sheet detailing
‘7 Things Never to Say at the Funeral of a Centenarian.’
To your horror you realize you grabbed
’30 Things You Should Never Tell a Person Whose Tailless Rat Just Bit the Dust.’
Your eyeballs roll up and to the left as you try to access the information you didn’t think you needed to store in your brain because every time one of those lists came through on social media you printed it out, for Pete’s sake, because the list labeled ‘Eight Things Never to Do in a Social Setting’ started with ‘Never check your smart phone to access the list.’
So you had them all made into these palm-sized laminated cards and now, good grief, good grief, you have the wrong one.
You debate turning around and going back home.
You actually have the key in the ignition when a rap at the window freezes you mid-click.
Your coworker, who should be standing in a line with the rest of her mourning family, all 94 of them, is outside your car.
Tears stream down her cheeks.
In her eyes you see the need for comfort and the absolute, childlike trust that you won’t say anything you should never say at the funeral of a centenarian. And you are frozen, key turned just far enough forward for the radio to perk out ‘Let it Go’ and you don’t know what not to say.
These are fearsome times. Shared knowledge has met the generation raised by parents who had their consciousness raised by the generation who had flowers in their hair and knew their way to San Jose.
This ‘Let go and let your feelings lead, and make sure to incorporate the feelings and emotional responses from everyone around you,’ when exposed to social media, has developed a people group with the sensitivity of an African Violet and as many possible points of insult-receptors as a hedgehog.
In the days of WWII, posters plastered throughout this great nation encouraged silence.
“Loose lips sink ships.”
One never knew if a Nazi, Fascist, or Imperialist might be listening for some loose-lipped American to decant some secret fact they weren’t even aware they possessed, and sink a ship.
In 2014, our national fear is letting fly some disparagement we might not have realized was insulting. (Let’s save the people-group raised by the people-group whose mantra was ‘I’m OK, You’re an Idiot’ for another discussion.)
Some things we instinctively know never to say. Others we learn via a jab from a humiliated mother’s elbow. Like ‘when seeing a gentleman with extra girth in his midsection, do not ask when his baby is coming.’
Some things we don’t know we shouldn’t say, merely because the lifestyle confronting us is outside our tent of experience. When one has met few homeschoolers, one tends to say, “But what about socialization?”, all unaware that they hear this question thousands upon thousands of times. The voluble response, however, will make one dash home and begin a list titled “THINGS NEVER TO SAY TO A HOMESCHOOLER ‘ with #1:
‘Never ask about socialization.’
But who knew that #32 on the list of 40 things you should never say to a DJ is
‘Can you play something faster?’
Or that you shouldn’t tell a working mom you admire her organizational skill?
Some lists contain common sense sorts of things.
Don’t tell a pro-wrestler he doesn’t look so tough.
Don’t ask a Canadian where they park their dogsleds.
Don’t tell a book lover you were surprised the library doesn’t just carry DVD’s.
Or the TSA guy at the airport that you’ve got a bomb built into your fake elbow.
In our plethora of ‘Things Not to Say’ lists, it would be delightful not to have to list common sense things.
But I believe the previous line comes under the heading ‘Things Not to Say to a Things Not to Say List-Maker.’
Your generally bright average kind person doesn’t tell someone who can’t afford to travel to Dairy Queen that they haven’t lived till they see Constantinople in mid-summer.
Any degree of sensitivity will keep us from telling a lonely single person how great (or awful) married life is and a yearning childless couple how great (or awful) children are.
Words can hurt. But sometimes they are just the stuff erupting from a well-meaning pinhead.
The words leave the speakers’ mouths blunted and benign but by the time they reach our ears, we have honed each one to rapier-sharpness while turning our most vulnerable side right into the line of friendly fire so we sustain the most damage.
Common sense and common thoughtfulness are ingredients we should add to our well-meant words before presenting them to the listener.
Grace is the after-market addition provided by the listener, an ingredient so powerful it can take words —flat or sharp—remove the sting, plump out the awkwardness, and reveal the heart of the presenter.
Sometimes ‘Grace’ is all you need on your list.