I’ve never been in federal prison, and can usually pass for respectable in public situations if nobody brings out a magnifying glass. But the downside is a pain. “Eternal vigilance” may be the price of freedom, as the old saying goes, but it’s not a pleasant way for an individual to get through a day.
When you’re a kid, the dread of being called on in class just goes with the territory. Or even called on OUT of class. If a grownup asks you a question on a street corner, you’d better respond clearly, correctly, and preface your response with “sir” or “ma’am,” or else there are clear repercussions from your parents/teachers not far down the road.
And just when you start thinking graduation will mark the end of your constantly being on alert servitude, you’re told in Sunday School that this is only the beginning
In fact, all the Bible verses admonishing against blasphemy, licentiousness, riotous living, etc. (for which there were remarkably few opportunities in a community of fewer than a hundred people alongside a two-lane blacktop in the woods) didn’t scare me nearly as much as the verse in the Book of 1st Peter that not only says “Always be ready to give answer,” but moreover to do it “in meekness and fear,” which basically is grammar school all over again.
Newfangled translations have changed that verse to “gentleness and respect,” but still. If pretty much means we’re on duty every waking moment we’re in public, for as long as we shall live and breathe.
Bummer. That could be a full-time job, and/or a good excuse to leave the house as rarely as possible. It wasn’t until many years later that I re-read Peter’s exhortation in context, and realized it only applied to questions about Jesus, particularly why we feel hopeful about following his teachings. Which for me can be a pretty short answer, 30 seconds to a minute, tops, without any strain at all.
As for all other questions, it’s apparently OK to respond anything from “None of your beeswax” to the hilarious repartee that we developed in grammar school: “Are you writing a book? Then leave that chapter out.” (I guess you had to be there.)
I’ve learned something interesting along the way, though: not every country and culture recognizes the clear-cut distinction requiring “yes” or “no” that we do in the West. There’s the Japanese word “mu,” for instance, which I’ve seen variously translated as “Un-ask that question” and “You’re asking the wrong thing.”
It’s a great option to have, and can be a helpful conversation starter as well. (Warning: the “mu” concept does not go over well when you’re on the witness stand in a courtroom.)
There’s also the useful strategy of answering a question with a question: “That’s interesting—why do you ask?” or “In what sense and context are you speaking?”
In the best case, these can lead to a deeper understanding between two human beings. Worst case, you get a blank look in return. Which is the perfect occasion to get a head start on your journey home.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His newest book, “I Left My Heart in Shanghi, Alabama: 25th Anniversary Edition” is available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.