The End of the Last Word

One interesting (and horrible) thing about the endless tidbit discussions encouraged by contemporary written media is that the wonderful concept of the last, striking, unanswerable word is virtually unattainable.  We’ve reached, at least in some settings, the end of the last word.

You know that 15-comment Facebook discussion packed with lowercase one-liners where everyone’s channeling their inner debate team champion and no one seems able to pack it up and go home?  That’s made possible partially by the fact that we can all sit there for three minutes tapping and backspacing until we nail it with an eight-word doozy.  Throw the GPAs out the window when you can just sit and stare at the screen until you’ve got that one-upper that we usually only imagine three hours after the conversation (accompanied with the inner moan, “Why couldn’t I think of it then?”).

In face-to-face conversation, you have a couple seconds at most to deliver the goods, especially if the siblings are especially frisky and the ad hominem‘s are moving around at junior high speeds.  I’m not saying this elicits anything particularly virtuous in the average twenty-something, but you probably recognize by now that I’m not really talking about virtue (and if your eyebrows are raised about now, you’re not seeing the satire).

Anyway, in any good face-to-face verbal sparring, someone just has to give up at some point, and if you’re being rhetorically handled, it’s best to recognize that fact sooner than later, and move on.  Maybe you just move on to another point of dissension or adjust your angle of approach, but you really and truly move on, and everyone knows why: you ain’t gonna get through that way.

Of course, you can always fake it ’til you make it, sputtering out poser responses and half-baked comebacks until you figure out how to dry your powder and reload, but that’s always risky (and conspicuous) business.  We all know that person (and you know who you are) who just can’t bring themselves to walk away without having the last word, shriveled and straining though it be.

This complex but colorful in-person dynamic is why the never-ending comment-thread exchange described at the outset rarely happens in the movies.  One party typically departs as the conversational loser, even if only at the close of a scene.  In a good legal drama, the legal representatives are always stocked with daggery lines that are delivered in a what-are-you-gonna-do-with-that tone.  Sure, the deck is always stacked in someone’s favor, because it’s not real, and because someone sat there for a lot longer than three minutes coming up with that movie-quote line that your friend can’t stop monologuing (“You can’t handle the truth!”).  But maybe the whole “I’m-gonna-leave-that-hangin’-out-there-for-a-bit” tone is part of our nature, part of communication, part of the good drama of rhetoric.  Maybe it’s natural that there be an implicit acknowledgement by everyone around that somebody really turned the key, and somebody else really got served.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not considering this an intensely serious reflection on a particularly worthy topic, and I hope you can sense the levity.  I’m not sincerely bemoaning the current age of technology just because Facebook comment-threads don’t produce the same show-stopping comebacks that fill the high school locker room and Law and Order (Facebook’ers have great jabs; they just never stop the show).  And I’m certainly not advocating the pride-driven, comeback-soaked exchanges of our worst days.

I’m just saying there’s a reason why we resonate with the knockout punch and hope for the walk-off homer.  It’s decisive.  It’s final.  And it’s potent.  Game, Set, Match.  Period.

There’s something innately powerful and wonderfully human about the last word, something embedded in the nature of our communication.  Whether in discussion, writing, speech, or sermon, it’s something we should acknowledge when we sense it, an acknowledgement best made by offering the honor of silence.  Unless we want to be that guy who gets up right after the Spirit-soaked sermon, and with the weight of glory hanging over the congregation, attempts to reiterate the point in the most well-intentioned but out-of-place way.

So here’s to last words, and striking statements, and Selah moments.  Here’s to spirited discussions that bring out the best in human thought and stir up the depth of human passion.  Here’s to sanctified comebacks that have outgrown childish snark and worldly bravado but that still cut in the best of ways.  And here’s to letting words sit, and letting them settle, and giving a good word its due, even if it didn’t come from us (or came at our expense!).

Now, after all that, I feel like I should have something really clever to say to drive in the nail, but I think I’ve burned through everything I’ve got, so this’ll have to be the last unimpressive word.  Until you comment.  Touché.


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