What Do Your Words Reveal?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Several years ago, while reading an article, I was pleased to find a reference to an essay I'd written. My pleasure turned to dismay a few paragraphs later when I began to read my own words. I was a victim of a plagiarist.

Plagiarism, in its most innocent form, is the result of poor documentation or carelessness. At its most egregious, it is identity theft, taking another's words, words spoken out of another's character and thought, and presenting them as your own. In either case, it is a complete lapse of integrity.

Lately, plagiarism has been much in the news. Two popular historians and a flamboyant political pundit have been embarrassed and had their reputations sullied. Their work appropriated sentences and ideas without citation.

Integrity requires me to confess I too have been a plagiarist.

In my first book, Reaching into Silence, I included a clever poem about grocery shopping with my wife:

Pausing between Cheer and Joy
I wonder if poetry can be made from All.

The poem passed muster as part of my master's thesis, and it passed the scrutiny of my publisher.

Some years later, however, I discovered I had swiped the word play from a poem by Randall Jarrell that I'd read as an undergraduate. Though my sin was unintentional, the result of carelessness, I keep it before me as a reminder to guard my integrity. I must hold myself to the highest standards—or others will.

Plagiarism is not the only way to stumble in communication.

I am haunted by a mistake I almost made. At a large gathering to honor one of my prep school teachers, I was unexpectedly asked to make a few remarks. The size of the crowd tempted me to be funny, to tell a story about the teacher's odd gait. Dorm residents liked it when he proctored study hours because we could always hear him coming. But in the moments before speaking I realized something. I owed him a debt I could not pay with a joke. Instead, I expressed gratitude for his example of discipline and excellence.

The speaker after me, my teacher's colleague, spoke of the unrelenting courage and silence with which he faced the physical handicap that caused the gait we recognized.

I still cringe at what I almost said. My choice to speak as I did was not entirely my own. It was a choice rooted in my teacher's example. Partially because of his leadership, I committed long ago to use my words appropriately. I do not communicate to show my cleverness or self-importance, but to offer my clearest perceptions to the community.

Beside the shame of what I almost said, my unintentional theft of Jarrell's words is relatively unimportant. But there is a connection between the two. We choose early to speak well or carelessly. The habit we fall into may betray us in unexpected moments. Or it may reveal our hearts.