I know a businessman in a lifelong love affair with Japan. He studies and admires the culture and history. He studies the language, the customs and traditions. His relationship with Japan reminds me of my maternal grandmother’s cosmic “crush” on Mexico. These are the kinds of people who make you want to believe in previous lives.
The businessman shows me, on paper, the Japanese word for “man.” It is, of course, not a word in the way most of us would normally think of the word “word.” It is a symbol, not a letter or grouping of letters. To me, an American and a Westerner, it looks more like design art than a language.
But there it is: man.
Now he shows me the Japanese word (again, to me a hieroglyphic design) for “word” or “words.”
Now the punch line. He shows me the Japanese word meaning “trust, trustworthy, faithful.” Oh my. It takes my breath away. The Japanese word for “trustworthy” is the symbol for “man” placed just to the left of the symbol for “word.”
Get it? For the Japanese, trustworthiness is what happens when a man stands next to his word.
It reminds me of one of my favorite Jesus teachings. Favorite because of its shocking simplicity:
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
— Matthew 5: 33-37
I laugh and shake my head as I think about all the hyperbole, protestations and rhetoric that punctuates modern human discourse: “Really? ... I swear! ... That’s the God’s truth! ... I mean that sincerely. ... You’ve got to believe me! ... I’m not kidding! ... etc.
Then there’s the great “I’m not lying about this” protestation. Which means, I guess, the person saying it might well be a liar in one or more other contexts. Just not this one. Nice of him to alert us.
But standing by your word is ever-so-much more rigorous a discipline than mere truth-telling. That is, not lying. Standing by your word means speaking with integrity and purpose. There’s an old saying: “He is a man of many words.” And it’s not really a compliment. For me, an extreme extrovert and a man who loves language, it’s taken a long, long time to appreciate and understand that not everything requires my commentary. That sometimes silence has the most integrity.
I know people whose “yes” is yes, whose “no” is no. It’s always that simple with them. They don’t toss words around. They say what they mean. They mean what they say. I never walk away from these people thinking “I wonder what he/she meant by that.” I always know. And when I rejoin these folks, they are always the same man or woman as they were before. Never someone else. No matter the time, place, company or conversation. There is a refreshing constancy about them. A continuity of selfhood that you can count on.
I am compelled by people such as this. Not to mention noticeably relaxed around them.
“I think you’re being a little outspoken,” my grandfather once said to me. Fascinating. He didn’t mean he agreed or disagreed. He was warning me the way you’d warn someone writing a check before he’d checked his bank account to make sure he had sufficient funds. My grandfather was cautioning me to consider whether I was prepared to stand next to the words pouring out of my mouth.
I always smile when I remember Romeo’s description of his cousin, Mercutio, to Juliet’s nurse: “He is a gentleman, nurse, who loves to hear himself talk. And he will say more in a moment than he will stand to in a month.”
It’s more than just a little embarrassing to remember the moments in my life when I’ve been Mercutio. But the embarrassment inspires me to hone the value of being a man who stands next to his word.
It’s a commitment I must renew each day.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.