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Rant #3: Meribah
by The Old Maid

Question : Why did the Children of Israel wander in the wilderness for forty years?

Answer : Because even in those days a man wouldn't ask for directions.

Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but when I first heard this joke I didn't get it. That's probably because it was taken out of context and was mean-spirited, which are two things I try to avoid. To my mind everyone simply knew that Moses reached the Promised Land in 51 months, so why the man-bashing? Oh, right, because it's supposed to be funny.

Then again I once found the source story equally incomprehensible. The Israelites were banished for life for "murmuring"? Wasn't that a little extreme for mere complaining? Doesn't everybody complain?

Verbal poison is everywhere. Listen to the radio. Turn on the television. Somewhere there's a forum for every last category of Things That Should Not Be Said. There's "true courtroom." Talk shows. Talk shows resulting in post-filming violence. "Fear the Celebrity ; Marry the Millionaire ; Surviving Big Brother." When did manipulation and humiliation become Family Entertainment? Even elevator music has become explicit. Judith Martin attributes this crassness to the inflation of expectations combined with a deterioration in language. Thus a gentleman who might have begged a lady to pity his lovesick heart is now more likely to be a male telling a female what he expects her to do with what. The only medium that hasn't fallen from grace is the Internet, probably because it never had a pedestal to fall from.

People didn't always converse this way. Once upon a time speakers paused to ask themselves three questions : Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? These screens didn't halt every inappropriate comment or change private thoughts, but they served to elevate social behavior as a whole. Also, previously people had more respect for themselves. It takes self-respect to challenge verbal trespassers. But nowadays few people dare to throw the one-two punch of "I don't need to know that" and "You don't need to know that."

Why did things change? My guess is that as people became more selfish and gratification-oriented, they decided they'd outgrown the Three Questions rule. Specifically, they discarded the question Is It Necessary. (All other rules fell by domino effect.) Speakers now define "necessary" to mean "it's necessary to say this or I won't get what I want." Verbal poison is so prevalent that writers can build their careers on the subject. There's "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" series by Suzette Haden Elgin. Then there's Richard Warshak's "Divorce Poison," which examines the things parents say to turn their children against noncustodial relatives and how to stop them. Do such books work? I suppose they do, as I've read several of them and found no glaring flaws in their logic. However the only time that I, personally, have known a book to stop a bully in his tracks was when the bully was whacked on the nose with one.

I grew up in a household where verbal felonies were a sport, a hobby, and an art form. As with all sports, there's always that one kid who is chosen last because he can't keep up. At the time I couldn't have known what a blessing that was. All I knew was that I didn't want to play if I had to be the ball. So one Good Friday I left. Someone referred me to a Catholic charity that matched clean low-income tenants to clean low-income housing, which was all I could afford alone. (Big step, too, for someone who was brought up to avoid Catholics. I never did find out why.) As they say, the rest is history. And with freedom came a change in my understanding of the Story of Forty Years. I realized what Heinlein meant when he wrote that the most important freedom is to be free in your mind. The Israelites weren't banished for complaining -- even Moses and the Nevim complained -- but rather because their verbal sewage was runoff from a deeper, poorly capped mental and emotional toxic waste dump. They couldn't leave Egypt in their minds. It was easier to take Egypt with them.

So then I pondered why the people didn't get a second chance in five years, or maybe ten. I changed. Joshua, Caleb, and Rahab changed. Why did everyone else get sentenced to life? Call it the Orwellian struggle between the Boxer and the Squealer in all of us. I wanted to believe the best about people. Still do. I did not want to believe that people could have enough poison in their hearts to last a lifetime. A little older now, I can testify that yes, there are people who will nurture their real or imagined grievances ; who will cherish them, keep hatred alive for years, for decades, waiting for one last opportunity to share it with anyone who will listen.

Seen in that light, the Forty Years' Exile finally made sense. The children of the Children grew up free to become (in Cahill's phrase) a band of rugged desert nomads that the soft city-dwellers of Canaan did not want to mess with. But try to imagine the generation gap. The freeborn nation felt no nostalgia for the certainties of slavery and no comprehension of why anyone would feel nostalgic for slavery. They must have wondered why their parents cared more about living in the past than about going to the Promised Land with them. Meanwhile, the bitter parents almost certainly cried, "You're waiting for us to die so you can get on with your real lives!" Clearly this was false. The children didn't know they were supposed to feel deprived. They were home. Unfortunately parental paranoia would have negated any attempts by their children to prove good intentions. Even Moses and his family snapped, locked in the same cage with the inmates. First Miriam made racist remarks about Moses' wife to turn the people against him and to angle for his job. Then Moses lost his own chance at the Promised Land when he struck the Meribah rock, a physical stand-in for the two million Hebrews he really wanted to spank. You don't have to emit toxic fumes yourself to be sickened by breathing them.

Verbal poison can destroy your life. It destroys your judgment. It can destroy your family, your friends (if any), and then spread in concentric circles out to who knows where. How many Africans died in slavery because of the lie that God cursed Ham? (Nobody cursed Ham. And the prophecy against Canaan was fulfilled when the Canaanites became extinct.) Or the lie that Paul returned Philemon's slave Useful to his master? (No, Paul freed Useful and gave him a job, which is why Paul said, "Give Useful my old office.") And as for the lies the Axis Powers told during World War 2, it would be easier to list the things about which they told the truth. (*sound of crickets chirping*)

Life and death are in the power of the tongue. Do we recognize just how much power? Sometimes I have my doubts. There are reasons and laws against breaking the Fifth Commandment, or the Sixth, but how can we protect ourselves from those who break the Ninth?

I guess there are lessons to be learned here. If someone is determined to be a jerk, sometimes there's not much you can do to stop him. All you can do is decide how you will respond. When someone hands you a poison seed, it is with the expectation that you will plant it. Don't. Don't plant it in yourself or pass it along to another person. Let it die. It's not as though there's a shortage of them. The reason religion teaches us to forgive is because grudges, bashing, gaslighting, and gossip water the poison seed. It turns us into what we hate. A mature adult doesn't look at people in terms of cut-and-dried, black-and-white. There are good qualities and bad qualities in everyone. Maybe we should use our gifts to bring out the good gifts in someone else. Even chronic complainers have some good qualities. Like dedication. A talent for persuasion. Stamina.

Then again, I'd pay big money for a works-on-people remote with a Mute button.


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