Perhaps you’ve heard this story, but it’s worth repeating. It’s about a young man with a terrible temper and the strategy his father used to deal with the problem.
After another of his son’s verbal outbursts, the father gave him a bag of nails and instructed him that every time he lost his temper, the boy was to hammer a nail into the wooden fence behind their house. On the first day of this lesson, the little fellow had to drive nearly 40 nails into the fence. He was frequently angry that day.
Over the course of the next several weeks, the boy continued to obey his father and hammered a nail every time he lost his temper. Slowly he discovered he could control his temper. As he did, the number of nails he had to hammer decreased. The day arrived when the boy succeeded in not losing his temper a single time. Feeling triumphant, he couldn’t wait to tell his father the news.
The dad was pleased, but to reinforce the lesson he suggested for every succeeding day his son didn’t lose his temper, the boy should pull out one of the nails he had hammered into the fence.
Weeks went by until one day the boy announced all the nails had been removed. With a smile, the father gently took his son’s hand and led him to the fence. “You’ve done very well, my son,” the dad observed, “but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same.”
The father concluded the lesson: “When you say things in anger, they leave permanent scars just like these. And no matter how many times you say you’re sorry, or how often you apologize, the wounds remain. So be very careful with your words – and how you use them.”
“Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” was the adage I often heard as a child, but I’ve since learned it’s untrue. The pain we suffer from harmful words often endures long after physical pain ends. Parents that call their children “stupid” or make other disparaging comments may not realize it, but those words will probably echo in the minds of their offspring well into their adult years.
Earlier in my life if I became angry, I’d say whatever was on my mind. Kind of my speak-first, think-later approach to communicating. “Ready, fire, aim!” Then I realized, like the nails pounded into the fence, my words spoken in anger would leave wounds and scars that were slow to disappear, if ever. A Bible passage offered great wisdom: “In the abundance of words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
In fact, Proverbs has a lot to say about anger and words carelessly spoken. For instance, it states, “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” Proverbs 13:3). And Proverbs 29:11 advises, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”
Without question, this life presents much we can get angry about. Some of us are more prone toward anger than others. But “I can’t help it” doesn’t justify harmful, hurtful outbursts. As 1 Corinthians 10:13 declares, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
Do I still get angry? Yup. Do I still want to blurt out thoughts in anger, giving people a piece of my mind I can’t afford to lose? Sadly, yes. But I’m much better than I used to be. I’ve learned “the devil made me do it” isn’t an excuse. And I’ve also realized what happens if you keep pounding those nails. When you pull them out, the evidence remains.
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, a former newspaper editor and magazine editor. He is presently vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., a non-profit focused on mentoring and coaching business and professional leaders. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and has authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” “Business at Its Best,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. He also posts regularly on two blogs, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com, and www.bobtamasy.wordpress.com. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.