One of the easiest things to give and take in school relationships is offence. It happens all the time that people take offence at what other people say or do. I am not quite sure how we as a society have got so sloppy in this area, but I think we need seriously to give thought to how we regard offence; how we give it (and why) and how we take it (and why), because it is damaging relationships simply because we have not thought clearly about what is happening when this form of communication is being used.
Children seem to take offence because it is given, but they, like adults, have a choice. Nobody has to take offence. It is a choice to do so, though from long habit we have eroded our ability to choose in this area. We can choose not to take offence and we can choose to duck and allow the offence to fly past us. There is a lot of rubbish talked in this area and mostly it is because we have not been taught to use our wills and our cognitive facilities, and to keep them in sharp practice, to analyse what has been thrown at us in terms of insult or foul and abusive language. So, some clarity, particularly for Christians:
- If we choose to take offence, we choose to render to the offence a level of importance that only we can give it.
- If we choose to take offence, we empower the person giving the offence and acknowledge that the weapon that they have chosen to use is a weapon worth wielding again. Should we refuse to take offence, we do real good for the person who has tried to offend us, for we assist in the rendering of the weapon, to some degree, impotent.
- If we refuse to take offence then it is impossible for the offence to lodge within us and we comply with the biblical injunction not to allow any root of bitterness to grow up in and around us (Hebrews 12:15), thus preventing the defilement of others around us.
- We tend to take offence because it is easier to do so and we “like” (perhaps not quite the word) the sense of victimhood that the offence confers should we take it, especially if it is said in company, where we can encourage its festering.
- Taking offence when none was given is also a speciality of the sensitive, and we need to be rigorous in taking every thought captive and subjecting it to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), so that we train our minds to put the best possible construct on anything that is said.
We also need to take responsibility as adults and as growing children for giving offence to others. We are responsible for what we say, and we are responsible for what we teach our children to say – teaching our children to copy our own sinful attitudes is condemned very strongly by Jesus in Luke 17:1ff. So, clarity is required here as well.
- Giving offence is a deliberate choice with the intent to harm. The gatekeeper of our minds needs to be deployed so that we “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29).
- The ability to maintain self-control and self-discipline is best practised with speech in mind. There is no justification in speaking whatever comes into your mind in “the interests of being honest”. There is a stream of thinking that says it is hypocritical not to say what you feel. This is not hypocrisy, but careful and well-managed self-control, which we are bidden to embrace as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and as something to add to our godliness and perseverance (2 Peter 1:6).
- The accidental giving of offence, when noticed, should be followed by a sincere apology, with restitution if needed. Yesterday I found that I had accidentally and in good faith given offence by wrongly attributing an action to a person. When we realised my mistake, I needed to ask what it ws that would suffice to put it right, not just say sorry. We are responsible for what we say and those words belong to us. We have to own them, and help extinguish the fire that they may have lit.
Another sticky area of choice and responsibility is morale within a school or class. I have been thinking again about morale and responsibility. At what point is low morale not so much a general feeling as a co-created communal construct, which we can lessen or expand by the things we say, by the positivity or negativity of our general approach to others, and by the level of self-control we exert over our feelings? I am not convinced that morale is something that “just is”, and whilst we have to take into account the very real inability of some adults to extricate themselves from feelings of depression and the impact of difficult and intractable circumstances, I want to explore the areas where we still have to assume responsiblity in how we impact (again, particularly as Christians) the milieu around us.
- We begin by taking our reasons for hope and contentment from a different source from those who would bring us down. For Christians this is the great hope of the resurrection and the reality of God’s affection for us. We can feel tired, we can face very difficult circumstances, we can grieve with those who grieve, but for Christians, none of these can be construed as evidence of God’s departure or desertion. Rather, he is with us always precisely because he knows we will need him close at such pressured times.
- The duty to encourage one another is a daily command, not a nice option for those who come out as encouragers on a psychometric test of predispositions. We comfort one another with the comfort that we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:2-7).
- When we speak negatively, we cannot blame it on the low morale around us. Rather, we are constructing that low morale, and choosing to detract from the efforts of those that are building it up. This is why in several organisations, speaking negatively can have disciplinary consequences. If we have chosen to commit ourselves to a vision of what a school or business could be, and indicate clearly as a policy how we speak and act to build up one another, then to detract from that is to an extent undermining the leadership of the organisation, just as it undermines that ethos when a senior leader speaks ill or unjustly of an employee or colleague to somebody else.
- We are not responsible for the actions of anyone else. Conversely, we cannot ask them to take responsibility for what we say or do. Morale is constructed in relationship, and we learn to take responsbility for what we have contributed to that. Praise, affection, speaking well of each other will lead to flourishing of the relationships and these are to be exercised not because we feel it, but because we determine that we will have a morale and ethos that reflects our best desires, not our worst.
It is not easy to be hard and fast about these issues, especially where medically-diagnosed depression is in the mix (as it often is). However, we have all as school observed a tendency of “normal” adults to be less well-trained in how and when to take responsibility and exercise self-control in speech and action. Somehow, the combination of social mores, materialist aspirations, technological communication and weakened parenting (amongst other factors) have led to a world where speaking our mind and “letting it all hang out” is more acceptable than it was (it isn’t, by the way), and the exercise of self-control is increasingly regarded as hypocritical, as though to think one thing and say another about a person was a fault, rather than careful control of the tongue. What I say affects morale, and I am responsbile – as we all are – for that. Recently I had to speak to children and to some adults about the fact that we might not be “to blame” in a situation but we are responsible for what we did and said. Taking that responsibility is the first step to maturity, and if you find this too hard to take, or think I am getting at you, then refusing to take offence at this particular message might be a step in the right direction…..