“Physician, heal thyself.” One of the most telling accusations in the days of Jesus of Nazareth was one’s failure to live up to one’s own standards, to reflect on others without having the capacity to reflect on oneself. Or perhaps not the lack of capacity, but the lack of an inclination to be self-critical, the ignoring of the need to weigh and measure words, the lack of any effort to ponder the consequence of actions.
Only after crassness and insensitivity does the realisation come that words spoken cannot be unsaid, that clumsily articulated thoughts might better not have been put into words, that sometimes one has just been plain stupid.
“A word once spoken can never be recalled,” wrote the Roman poet Horace in the First Century BC. Horace lived in times when the danger of such a mistake was not nearly as great as in the Twenty-First Century. Unless one spoke wrongly in one’s immediate company, the chance of speaking a word that could not be recalled was slim. Literacy was limited, writing materials were expensive, and there was no established postal service. Horace could not have anticipated what potential for damage would have developed for those of us who are socially inept.
In the days of letter writing, one would normally have re-read the words on a page before folding the sheet of paper. Sometimes, thinking about the words was sufficient to prompt the tearing of the paper into small pieces. The need to stick on a stamp and go to a postbox allowed further time to think about the hurt that might be caused.
The telephone allowed the possibility of a literally spoken word that could not be recalled, but telephone calls were expensive compared to their present cost. A three minute call from Dublin to Belfast in the early-1980s cost eighty pence; eight 10p pieces being fed into the box; perhaps the expense made one consider one’s words.
Now the abundance of social media and free online communication allows oafish fools unlimited scope to say wrong things, to cause hurt unwarranted by the facts, to upset people unnecessarily. Perhaps Horace’s words, “a word once spoken can never be recalled,” should be pasted to every smartphone, tablet and computer keyboard. Perhaps they would make those of us who are inept in our use of words cautious about words spoken without reason.
Physician, heal thyself – or at least don’t hurt others.