Keep a civil tongue in your head

shutterstock_1291748551Even though corporal punishment wasn’t considered politically incorrect or even vaguely inappropriate when my sisters and I were growing up, our parents rarely used this method of discipline.  Unsurprisingly for a journalist, my father’s preferred form of reprimand was always language. As a teenager, when I argued with either parent Dad metred out sharp turns of phrase like, ‘Always wrong but never in doubt,’ or the classic King Lear line, ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’. But it’s his rebuke for answering back or being disrespectful, as teenagers are wont to be, that is stamped on my very being all these years later: ‘Keep a civil tongue in your head’.

This phrase, and Dad’s incisive delivery, put a stopper in many a seismic teenage tantrum, teaching me to bottle up my anger rather than learning to express it in a healthy way. While I don’t blame my father (I mean, who wouldn’t do everything in their power to stifle a child’s limbic outburst?) the ramifications of that strategy laid down the welcome mat for some heavy-duty therapy later in life. A whole other blogpost, to be sure.

Ironically, as I started writing this post, the 1980s Woody Allen movie Manhattan happened to be playing on Foxtel. I laughed like a drain when the main character, Isaac says, ‘I can’t express anger. That’s one of the problems I have. I grow a tumour instead’. Irony indeed, considering a huge tumour in my left breast tried to kill me a few years back.

With the benefit of hindsight, a mastectomy, some chemo, a bit of psychotherapy and a lot of self-help books under my belt, I now see my father’s exhortation to ‘keep a civil tongue’ as more of a homily than a rebuke.  There’s a lesson in them words, and isn’t it a bit funny that I should be guided to write on this topic while the May Federal election campaign was underway, chock-full as it was of insults, lies and plain-old, down home stupidity?

I forgot myself during this campaign and did a lot of yelling at the television, laughing bitterly when the king of negativity himself – PM for a nanosecond and former member for Warringah, Tony Abbott – said he witnessed ‘a new level of nastiness’ in the campaign.  But I noticed something too – the more I hurled insults and name-called to vent my frustration, the more frustrated I became.

And THEN, to witness the poll-defying return to power of a blokey, self-righteous, unkind and climate-denying conservative government, to have to accept the choice of the majority of people in this country – well, it was like the classic scene in The Blind Side. The feisty Leigh Anne Tuohy (played by the fabulous Sandra Bullock) admits to her husband Sean that he’s right. Sean says, ‘Excuse me? You’re right? How did those words taste coming out of your mouth?’  Leigh Anne responds flatly, ‘Like vinegar’.  (Relive the moment here.)

I may have the perfect excuse for flying off the handle but even in my chemo-addled state, I can see that angry verbal outbursts just make crappy situations crappier. They bring little in the way of relief or change in current or future situations. I’d even go as far as saying that angry words actually block the flow of understanding and compassion I believe we’re all craving.

In one of the last interviews she gave before her death in 2014, American author and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, stressed the importance of being mindful while speaking because she believed that words have a pervasive power:

“Words are things, I’m convinced. I think they get on the walls, they get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs and your upholstery and your clothes. And, finally, into you.”

This assertion is reason enough for me to seriously consider keeping a civil tongue in my head for spiritual health purposes if nothing else. However, Angelou’s portrayal of words as a contagion is a tad negative for my taste.  I much prefer what that wise old wizard, Professor Albus Dumbledore, had to say to Harry Potter on the matter:

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”

On reflection, I don’t think it was just the words that my old dad was referring to when invoking a civil tongue. He certainly enjoyed hearing someone say a well-placed ‘feck’, ‘sheet’ or ‘bugger’ when the situation warranted it.

I believe what he was really talking about was the tenor of the words and the intent behind them.  Words can be weapons, as we all know, and who can blame an old journo for holding tightly to the idea that the pen might actually be mightier than the sword. In this ‘open season’ on journalism, I sure hope Dad’s right about that. In the meantime, though, what to do about my frequently uncivil tongue and its proven impotency against the tide of despair that threatens to engulf me every time I turn on the TV news?

It’s taken me a long time to write this blog because I’m a firm believer in practising what I preach. In a world where mean tweets, verbal take-downs and outright lies have become the norm, it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed and out-gunned, even if one isn’t undergoing chemotherapy treatment.  But what’s the practical alternative to simply joining the chorus of angry frightened voices out there, creating more anger and fear by doing so? Here are a few things I’ve been trying out – none of which are guaranteed, you understand. However, they have been helping me to feel a little more in control of the tongue in my own head at least.

Dog training and Donald Trump – A wise dog-trainer once told us that turning your back on a pup every time they jump up on you sends a strong message of disapproval. We had a modicum of success with our Beagle-cross-Cavalier, Clark, who’s way cuter and much more forgivable than Donald Trump – smarter too no doubt.  The notion of turning one’s attention away from a vexing person or situation is not just the preserve of dog trainers as it happens. In Thursday’s Law in his Seven Spiritual Laws lexicon, Deepak Chopra asserts that whatever we put our attention on gets bigger in our lives. Conversely, turning one’s attention away from something or someone will make it less prominent in one’s reality and can even make it disappear altogether.

So, when Donald Trump appears on the television news these days, which he seems to do with inordinate frequency for someone who isn’t our president, I turn my back on him physically if I’m standing, or metaphorically if I’m sitting down.  I close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and sing something amusing, like the last verse of Monty Python’s Universe song:

So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure how amazingly unlikely is your birth

And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space because there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

Please understand, dear readers, I’m not advocating denial here – not at all. I’m fully accepting of whatever or whomever is bugging me but I’m making a conscious decision to deny that person or thing my attention. Mindfully choosing where to place my limited, chemo-speckled focus is a singularly empowering act and it sure beats succumbing to angry word-vomit (which tastes a whole lot worse than vinegar in my experience).

ThThumpere wisdom of Thumper – Bambi’s little friend Thumper famously said, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.’ Grammatical anomalies aside, this little piece of homespun wisdom has given me pause for thought in my quest to keep a civil tongue in my head.  I’ve learned that silence is golden in many situations, but not all. Staying quiet when one should speak up is not advisable, unless like Manhattan’s Isaac, growing a tumour is your thang.  Once again, it’s the tenor and intent of the words that make the difference here. If I feel I must say something, it doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ as Thumper exhorts, but it should at least be calm and respectful.

When words fail me, literally - Much of what I see and read in the news leaves me utterly gobsmacked. Until I started musing on my uncivil tongue, I defaulted to a variety of offensive hand signals before slumping with exhaustion back on the couch in a state of hopelessness. Now, when my own words fail me, I try one of the following pre-prepared mantras:

‘May there be Divine Right Action’ – a prayer for when overwhelming things happen to which there are no simple answers, like the Hong Kong riots or the early bushfire season. To my way of thinking, praying for divine right action surrenders any problem to a force greater than ourselves while simultaneously asking for the highest and best possible resolution. This prayer is a beaut for when I feel utterly powerless.

‘Om Shri Dhanvantre Namaha’ – I’ve mentioned this Day 15 Healing mantra in  Deva Premal and Miten’s 21 Day Mantra Meditation Journey in previous posts.  It’s a very powerful set of Sanskrit worrds that not only asks for healing for oneself but for others too. When I witness anyone suffering on the nightly news – which happens every night – this mantra is my fall back.

‘Peace Begins with Me’ –  When I’m cross with a person (insert name of just about any Australian politician here) or a situation (like that idiot who overtook my learner-driver son on the inside lane and flipped us the bird as he bolted past) I invoke #6 in Gabrielle Bernstein’s wonderful Miracles Now collection of techniques to reduce stress. This is a Kundalini meditation that’s really simple to do and is a great reminder for me to ‘be the change’ I wish to see in the world.

  • On either or both hands, press your forefinger to your thumb and say PEACE.
  • Then press your middle finger to your thumb and say BEGINS.
  • Then, with your ring finger to your thumb say WITH,
  • Then, with pinky to thumb, say ME.

I apply this technique as many times as I need to calm myself down when dealing with vexing people or situations.

When I feel that the whole shebang is out of control and I am totally insignificant in the scheme of things, I say my own version of the Peace Prayer. If you ascribe to the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory then saying a prayer that encompasses all the people you know and all whom they know – well, that’s a lot of people.  Just for good measure I throw in a blanket wish for peace for the whole planet too.  Here’s how it goes:

Buddha outside my bedroomPEACE to me

PEACE to everyone I know and all whom they know

PEACE to the world.



I say this prayer every day in front of the most placid looking Buddha statuette I could find, complete with burning incense.  A very calming and life affirming ritual.

This was another difficult post to write, dear readers, so thanks for sticking with me.

All the breast.


  1. warren reed says

    A wonderfully warm post from Jen, full of the richness of life. It’s a sobering and joyful read for anyone, no matter where they’re coming from.

  2. Janet Garside says

    Thank you for this Jen. I will be using the peacebeginswithme action from here on in.
    My beautiful Mum, Loretta, had a deep faith and her prayers were always focused on the changing or softening of hearts as one faced difficult situations and/or people.
    Thanks for the memories of your wise Keith and my lovely Loretta.
    Love to you.

  3. kamlesh vyas says

    what an amazing combination of thought realty and wisdom ..
    i believe that the mind is the strongest gift we have it can create any thing it can make any thing possible. we just need to know the difference between mind and brain…
    thank you jen . i hope you remember me..

  4. Shirley Smith says

    Darling Jen,
    Brilliant insight in writing as usual! This was very soothing to read and full of practical applications for a former Australian who is now living in the USA. Miss you.

  5. Tim Wilson says

    Crikey, it was like I was reading about myself – hurling abuse at the TV or my computer (although tempered somewhat recently by the presence of a sharp-as-a-tack two year old!) and with an unhealthy addiction to any mention of Trump. Just spent half the morning abusing iTunes because it wouldn’t load properly.
    I am so going to try the Peace Be With You thing. Thanks Jen!

  6. Julie McHenry says

    Thank-you, Jen! Your posts always bring something new, insightful and useful. I love the way you weave together so many relevant references to your POV. So powerful. Thank-you, dear friend.

  7. Susan says

    You are so insightful Jen – thank you.
    I was telling a colleague the other day how much you helped me through my first batch of presentations at Qantas. I can still rattle off what you taught me and used it last week when I had to present – it meant so much at the time and still does.

  8. Fleur says

    Thanks Jen for putting into words the feelings we are confronted with everyday in the 24hr news cycle and where for politicians, lying is the new normal. Your suggestions and humour are very welcome! Lots of love Fleur x

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