Sometimes it is a good thing to say bad things

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 19, 2001

My mother always said – because her mother always said – "If you can’t say something good about a person, don’t say anything at all.

Monday, February 19, 2001

My mother always said – because her mother always said – "If you can’t say something good about a person, don’t say anything at all." Of course, they didn’t really believe this, because both had plenty of bad things to say about me. I value this age-old expression as proverbial truth that makes a good point. When abused by literal application, however, it is a very bad thing indeed. Bad things must be said about people’s bad things so they can do good things to remain or become good people.

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Picture going to your physician, suffering from something wrong in your body (or mind). After examination, he says: "Well, I don’t have anything good to say about you; so, I won’t say anything at all." Or, you fear you have violated the law and consult your lawyer. After telling him what you have done (or not done), he dismisses it all with: "I really don’t want to criticize, so I won’t comment on this." Or, you suffer morally or spiritually and seek the counsel of your pastor. He listens to your self-described misery and ends the session: "I try not to be negative and suggest you just try to work this out by yourself."

Under such conditions, we go to a professional to hear bad things about our bad things. If there is something bad, we need to find out so we can do something about it. I have heard people pray thoughtlessly: "Lord, may the doctor not find anything wrong with me." The prayer should be: "Lord, may the doctor find anything that is wrong with me."

Then we can work together to do something about the bad thing. The unidentified or ignored bad thing never heals itself, but gets worse until it kills.

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to tell my father he was going to die. His physician had told him clearly enough that the surgery was successful for an immediate problem, and if Dad had been able to listen objectively he would have recognized he said nothing about the cancer Dad had already been told was terminal. But he never complained about his problems and did amazing things with a positive attitude. It just wouldn’t work in this situation.

I looked into his eyes and said, "Dad, you’re going to die." He processed this and said, "Thank you, son." That was the last either of us ever said about his death. He set about to accomplish his life, and I turned to preparing to live as he had taught me but without his immediate presence.

As in arithmetic and English grammar, two negatives can make a positive in human relationships. A bad thing you say about my bad behavior can make my behavior good. Not only professionals, but caring friends can work this equation. He is no friend who could help you and will not. A brand antiseptic product used to advertise "Even your best friend won’t tell you (that you have B.O.)." That he would, my friend, is the definition of a best friend. He will be willing to endure the discomfort of telling you something embarrassing and unpleasant – and will tolerate your anger if it comes to that – because he cares for you and about you.

The common excuse for not doing so: "Oh, I don’t want to be unkind." Unkind is precisely what we are when we can help a friend and refuse to do so. Not infrequently, saying something bad about a person is the kindest thing we can do for that person. The most common reason for not doing so is not a desire to be kind, but irresponsibility or even cowardice.

(This, not so much just BTW, is the motive for the occasional negative commentaries you read here.)

Each of us does bad things, but there is no bad thing that cannot be overcome by being told it is bad. Let’s be good to each other by helping each other to be good.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays