“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
You’ve heard the quote, used so often that it has almost become a platitude. President Theodore Roosevelt, at the beginning of the twentieth century, coined the phrase, or at least brought it into common usage. He meant by it, that you back up the words you say with visible strength. On several occasions during his time in office, Teddy Roosevelt had the opportunity to test the veracity of the saying, each time, achieving success.
Without getting into a political argument, I’m wondering if we’ve gotten somewhat off course in our personal relationships by implementing the big stick theory in more areas of life than was ever intended. It would seem that the big stick theory doesn’t hold true in every difficulty we are faced with.
“Grandpa, when are you going to put up the basketball goal?” The young fellow with the twinkle in his eyes was itching to use the Christmas gift which he and his brother had received a few days before. It was cold outside, but the young man’s enthusiasm for getting the project underway couldn’t be extinguished by a little chilly air. “It looks like Saturday is going to be sunny,” replied his Grandpa, and the date was set.
The goal was mostly assembled indoors at Grandpa’s house, but the task of adding weight to the base, approximately three hundred and fifty pounds of sand, would have to be done outdoors. Saturday was, indeed a sunny day, but the temperature never rose much above thirty. The promise would still be kept. Sand was purchased, seven fifty-pound bags of the gritty material, and the partially completed goal loaded into the bed of Grandpa’s old pickup truck for the trip over to the kid’s house. Within moments of his arrival, all of the children, both boys and girls, were outside, several of them without their shoes, since they couldn’t be slowed down by the time-wasting task of putting on unnecessary pieces of clothing. They were getting their basketball goal today!
Grandpa was almost as excited as they, but his fervor was short-lived. The parts of the goal went together easily and quickly. The sand was not so cooperative. The instructions had said to pour the sand into the base. They said nothing about whether to use wet or dry sand. This was definitely wet sand. It didn’t wish to be poured. It wasn’t going to be poured. A huge funnel was procured, but the aperture for pouring the material into the base was just over one inch in diameter, so the globby, sticky stuff had to be coaxed into place. One helper suggested poking it down with a stick, so one was located rather quickly. It was a slender, fragile looking thing and Grandpa soon tired of the anemic switch and went in search of something more substantial. He returned with a longer and thicker stick, one almost the exact size of the aperture in the funnel. It pushed down more material, but with each downward push, the stick itself stopped up the hole, preventing the sand from slipping into the base. “No, Grandpa,” came the remark from one onlooker. “That stick’s just too big. We need to use the little one again.” Watching the thin twig work its magic, enticing the reluctant and damp sand into the opening, he had to admit that the reasoning was sound. This was one time that getting “a bigger hammer” wasn’t the cure for the problem.
Have you ever noticed what the shepherds in nomadic cultures carry in their hands when herding their sheep? While the stick they use may be long, it would never be described as big. The thin rod is used to guide gently and, if necessary, to flip the animals momentarily, causing a stinging pain which disappears quickly and inflicts no physical damage. It does, however, leave a memory of the undesirable effect which straying has and encourages future acquiescence to commands. The goal of having individual lambs which do not stray into danger and certain injury is achieved, not by terrifying them or maiming them, but by gently urging them back into the way of safety.
I’ve mentioned before a friend of mine who many years ago used the big stick method to work with livestock. It used to be common for farmers who worked with big animals, such as cattle, to keep a loose two-by-four somewhere near the place where they worked the stock. One farmer explained to me that they sometimes needed to “get the cow’s attention.” This particular friend used such an attention getter one day on an unruly beast, popping it once right on the forehead. The thousand dollar beast fell down…dead. A rod, perhaps, might have served the purpose better…
There is a point to my verbal meanderings tonight, and it’s not just about beasts and basketball goals. I am thinking of my own approach to personal relationships; remembering the times when I have hit folks between the eyes with my verbal two-by-fours, just to get their attention. Some of them don’t come around anymore. I wonder why?
I have been told of churches that embarrass and demean people who are found in sin. One infamous church sends its members around the country to stand at funerals with their big sticks, pointing fingers of blame and reproach at victims and soldiers. This is surely not what the Teacher meant when He told of the master of the feast who sent his servants “into the highways and by-ways”; compelling people to come in and be fed. But, I’m not speaking tonight of institutions and their misuse of the power they have. I’m talking, mostly to myself, and maybe a little to you, about how we deal personally with other pilgrims wandering along the same road as we ourselves are.
When we smack people with the truth, it usually indicates a selfish motive on our part, showing our power and moral superiority, and belittling the person we have smacked. But the words I read say that we are to speak the truth in love. Power and moral superiority aren’t indicators of love. They don’t draw anyone to the truth, but in fact, drive them from it. Is it any surprise when people avoid us after they’ve been treated so? Shouldn’t we, rather, be seeking ways to attract them, to teach them, to partner with them, as they try to achieve the goal set before them?
Big sticks may have a place in the world of politics and of diplomacy, but they’re fairly useless in dealing with sheep. And that is what we are. The psalmist had it right when he suggested that we are His people, just sheep in His pasture.
A big stick causes injury. I think that I’m finally ready to use the soft words, and see if we can accomplish better results with the rod which comforts. It will be a welcome change to those around me, I’m sure.
Maybe you’re ready to give it a try, as well.
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
“Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness.”
(from “As You Like It”~William Shakespeare~British playwright~1564-1616)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.