Week 3: Hold My Tongue

PASSION.  We’re creatures of it.  Some more than others.  Me more than most.

I’ve always known this since I was a little kid.  In the third grade, I became so obsessed with learning new words and language that I dropped a truly unfortunate one on my ex-piano teacher: “plump.”  You know why I said ‘ex’?

In middle school, (okay high school, and maybe a little of college) I had deep crushes on girls that would last for months.  Moreover, I felt the need to express the depth of my feeling for them through expansive, rampant poetry and lyricism.  Blinded by passion, I would fail to see the bright orange cones of the friendzone until I literally ran them over with my train of infatuation.

But it was in eighth grade that still holds the crown for possibly the most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever done in the name of pure passion.  I was competing with my arch-rival, an Indian dude who I will call Rohan, to be Moody Middle School’s representative and the annual Optimist Public Speaking Competition.  Zealous to do something exceedingly bold, I perhaps stepped over the line a little bit when I wrote a story about a burglar killing a cop after a robbery, and then performed it in front of my gaping audience – describing in oozy detail the blood and guts of the murder.  Right after I uttered the last words, no one clapped.  Instead, I only heard a squeak from the left side of the room: “Kenny, please see me outside.”

My English teacher, fuming red, jabbed her thin finger at my heart when she said: “Kenny, that was one of the best-written stories I’ve ever heard from an eighth-grader.  But it was entirely inappropriate.”  I was nearly suspended from school.  I still remember the blush in her face as she stared me down in that cold hallway, my heart pitter-pattering like the pouring rain.

I remember her coming back to me one day and telling me that I wouldn’t be suspended.  She left me with these words: “Kenny, you’re an extremely talented young man.  Probably one of the brightest I’ve ever seen.  Be careful out there.”

Passion can be an immensely good thing.  For one, it gets things done.  Anybody who knows a successful entrepreneur or activist knows they are only there because they had the passion to actually get their crap together and do something, make something happen.  Imagine an Apple without Steve Jobs.  Evangelicalism without Johnathan Edwards.  They both had missionary zeal for their line of work – Apple even calls its salespeople “evangelists,” as Chief Evangelist Guy Kawasaki explains.  (I read his book.)

But it’s not without its problems.  There’s a reason why the Bible teaches us to “tame our tongue,” asking us to “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” (James 3:5) An overly zealous or passionate voice, left unchecked, can burn the whole house down.  As someone who believes in the infallibility of Scripture (more on that in a future post), I hesitate to diminish the great power of these exhortations.

And yet I come from a Romantic school of thought, which was a period of European literary innovation during the 18th and 19th centuries that emphasizes the truth value of the imagination, of breaking social structures and of establishing one’s individuality amidst a sea of conformity.  The first time I heard of such a philosophy, I jumped in like a diver off the coast of Cape Town.  My adherence to many tenets of Romanticism and my own personality drive me to ride my passion like a Hawaiian wave – until it crashes suddenly into a rock, that is.

This week I had several conversations with people I like and respect, from a sympathetic professor to my liberal friend to a conservative freshman who’s known me for three weeks, all who seek to help me.  And all three of their prescriptions are the same: be intentional with your words.  I almost don’t realize how public of a figure I have become.  But it’s no longer Kenny Xu just trying to get people to respect his beliefs out of the corner of his dorm and a couple of pocket Constitutions.  It’s Kenny Xu, still fighting for his beliefs, but now with a megaphone and a heaping gob of public scrutiny.

I am so grateful for these people in my life.  They are my checks and balances, my Yangs to my Yins.  Control my tempo.  Control my passion.  Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, they say.  Ever since Mrs. Sudfeld came up to me and pointed her finger at my soul, who would later tell eighth-grade me, who had no understanding of politics whatsoever, that she was a secret Republican who couldn’t say what she truly believed in because of her job security, I’ve been surrounded by whisperers, by consciences, who mean the best for me.  And I believe what they say, lest I become an Icarus, flying too close to the sun.  Hold your tongue, Kenny, hold your tongue.

“But I need to break out.”

“But I need to stand up for the people who can’t.”

“But I need to escape my paralysis, to be authentic to who I am.”

“But I need to tell her how I feel.”

Oh, God, it’s hard.  I say too much.  Bring me Your peace, help me to discern when I should speak up and when I should stay quiet, help me to be careful in my language, help me to not be consumed by passion without mercy, energy without intentionality, righteousness without love.

Help me to stand up for what I believe, and stay true to who I am, but also to express what I believe with the fruits of love, patience, kindness, mercy.

Even if it means holding my tongue just a little tighter to the roof of my mouth.

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