Saturday, June 18, 2011

Throwing the letter in the fire

Reminds me of a story: One day, Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War, came into Lincoln's office in a towering rage over an abusive letter he'd received from a general who'd accused him of favoritism. Lincoln sat him down at his own desk and had him write out an equally angry reply, suggesting, "Prick him hard!" Stanton did so, and showed it to the President, who exclaimed, "Right! Right! Just score him deeply! That's first rate, Stanton."

But when Stanton folded it and put it into an envelope, Lincoln asked, "What are you going to do with it?" Stanton, puzzled, replied, "Send it." "Nonsense!" Lincoln denied. "You don't want to send that letter. Put it in the stove." Then he explained: "That's what I do when I've written a letter while I'm angry. It's a good letter, and you've had a good time writing it and feel better. Now, burn it, and write another letter."

In the last four years or so of haunting the blogosphere, I've had a few occasions where I've written comments in anger and hit the "Reply" button before I've cooled down enough to re-think my response. A minute later, I'd read my now-permanent contribution, and I'd cringe at its juvenile put-downs and snarky dismissiveness. But, of course, I could no longer do anything about it: for better or worse, it was out there beyond my reach.

Which is all by way of saying why I haven't written anything about John Corapi's decision to leave the priesthood, and why I forgive Mark Shea for blowing his top and posting in anger. I've simply done it too often myself to chide my fellow bloggers for it, or kick them when they feel remorse. And I can't honestly say I'll never do it again, because anger's like that ... it has the disturbing tendency to overwhelm good intentions and common sense.

I too feel hurt and betrayed, as I do whenever I read of any priest who abandons his collar, whether in the sense of resigning from the priesthood or in the sense of engaging in scandalous behavior. Granted, I don't know the full story behind the accusations, his confrontation with his religious superiors or their decision prompting his resignation. And part of me wonders if anger isn't overwhelming his better judgment as well; certainly it'll cost him some credibility as he moves into his self-appointed role as "the black sheepdog".

But anger and ignorance are bad positions from which to write anything more.

As former Rep. Anthony Weiner has found out, the Brave New World of electronic communications makes it much easier — far too easy — to commit stupid indiscretions with catastrophic impact to one's life, career and relationships than it was when we depended on mail, telegraphs and printing presses to communicate over long distances and large groups of people. (If you've seen this eHarmony video that was viral a few days ago, you'll see it's not limited to the famous.) We no longer have wood-burning stoves in which we can throw first drafts; in fact, the Brave New World almost actively discourages first drafts of anything.

Not that Mark's post was an indiscretion of career-ending injury or colossal dumbth. Just sayin'.

The old African proverb says, "Do not throw in anger the spear which will be returned against you." Every email, every tweet, every text message and every post should be regarded as a potential boomerang that can come back at you, from an unexpected direction at an unpredictable time, to klonk you on the head. While this is especially true for those who make their living in the public eye, it's no less true for the anonymous semi-skilled worker hidden in the bowels of Ginormous Industries Intl., schlepping his way to "gold watch time" with Outlook and Communicator on his work desktop.