January 23, 2014
Spencer said, “I ain’t never doin’ it. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
The words were slurred because his tongue was still hanging out of his mouth, giving the impression that this five-year-old had been drinking a little more than his customary Kool-Aid.
“Do you have to keep sticking your tongue out like that?” I asked him.
“Yeth,” he slurred again. “If it’s in my mouff, I can’t control it.”
“Ah,” I answered and nodded in approval. It was a good idea, I thought. A more practical way to tame the tongue. “Good luck with that. If it works, you’ll be famous.”
“Why?” he asked, eyes bulging.
I shrugged. “It’s never been done before. Not as far as I know. Folks say it’s impossible.”
Spencer hadn’t considered the prospect of fame. Riches, yes. But renown might be even better.
“I ain’t never doin’ it,” he repeated. Meaning that was that and I should probably be moving along.
So I did. Away from the Sunday school rooms and through the foyer to grab this week’s church bulletin, then finally into the sanctuary to settle my family. It just so happened that Spencer and his family settled in two rows behind. Just after the first hymn and just before the first prayer, I stole a look over my shoulder.
Spencer’s tongue was still out, despite the repeated attempts by his mother to rectify what she no doubt considered ill manners. I raised an eyebrow at him and got a thumbs up in reply.
His father takes the blame for the entire situation. He was the one who took care of Spencer’s loose bicuspid with a bit of fishing line and a doorknob. “Quick and painless,” he’d told his son. Spencer didn’t think that was quite so. Turned out that both of them were right.
The trick was quick, yes. And also painful.
Fathers often resort to desperate measures to put a stop to a crying child, and Spencer’s tried everything in the book up to and including an impending visit from the Tooth Fairy. That perked Spencer’s ears a bit and brought the wailing down to a somewhat manageable sob, but that only lasted until Spencer found out all the Tooth Fairy was good for was a dollar. To him the pain and suffering alone was worth at least ten, not to mention the mental distress.
Knowing his son was quite the budding capitalist, Spencer’s dad decided to up the ante with an old wives tale.
“Better stop cryin’,” he told his son, “or else your tongue might slip into that hole in your mouth.”
Spencer stopped. “Why?” he mumbled.
“You mean you don’t know what happens if you keep your tongue clear?”
“If you never let your tongue touch that spot, the tooth that comes in will be gold.”
It was without doubt a stroke of genius, a psychological ploy designed to divert Spencer’s attention away from the pain he was feeling. More than that, he gave his son a goal. And we all know that a little pain is nothing if there’s a goal to be reached.
There is that unscientific yet utterly concrete law of unintended consequences. Each cause has more than one effect, which will lead to any number of side-effects. In this particular case, the effect was what Spencer’s dad intended—his son stopped crying. The side-effect, though, was that Spencer walked around the house for a full day and a half with his tongue hanging out.
His parents didn’t mind (though his mother would have preferred her son not stick his tongue out while in the house of the Lord). In fact they encouraged it, going to far as to tell Spencer that it was considered permissible to house his tongue inside his mouth during sleep. Evidently consciousness is a prerequisite in the cultivation of a gold tooth.
In the end his parents have experience on their side. They understand the desire to accomplish a goal, no matter how intimidating the odds. They also understand that very often the thing we’re trying so hard not to do is the very thing we end up doing. Life is all about the constant battle between the two.
The pastor delivered a fine sermon that Sunday, but I have a feeling no one will remember it. What they will remember is the sound of a little boy shouting “Aww heck!” in the middle of the service. The Bible does indeed our desires are tough to tame. We’re always getting in our own way. Which is why the real sermon that day came from a child in a pew rather than a preacher at the podium.
The Billy Coffey Collection