Sticks and stones may break my bones
but words will never harm me.
The Christian Recorder (March, 1862)
A few weeks ago, a longtime friend called in tears. It seems that she had once again been victimized by her unusually vindictive, manipulative and mean-spirited ex-husband – a “man” she was married to for more than a decade, who once professed his love for her – the father of the 3 children she has been so tirelessly and selflessly devoted to since their contentious break-up several years ago. She reported that, on their way out of the courthouse, after yet another aspersion-laced hearing in their seemingly never-ending custody dispute, her ex felt compelled to take a final, baseless parting shot: “You’re nothing but a drunken whore,” he said – and with that he turned and walked away. No sticks, no stones, no broken bones. “Just” six scurrilous, hate-filled words spewed like venom from the lips of an ignorant and heartless man out of earshot of any witnesses save for their intended target – the verbal equivalent of a Mike Tyson body shot leveled at a most undeserving, already battered heart. I hardly knew what to say to my friend or for that matter the countless others (men and women, young and old), who have found themselves on the receiving end of such verbal recklessness.
You see, the inescapable truth is: There are few weapons in the human arsenal more powerful than words. In the hands of a skillful orator or writer, they can be transformative and do tremendous good. Anyone who doubts that need only reflect on how relatively few of them it took: to start a nation (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”); to inspire a generation (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”); to serve as a catalyst for societal change (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”); to define man’s conquest of space (“This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”); to capture and unleash a child’s imagination (“Once upon a time . . .”); to convey the criticality of self-belief (“I think I can, I think I can”); to write The Giving Tree; to express complex emotions (“I love you”); or to provide a road map for healthy human interaction (“love thy neighbor as thyself”).
And yet, as my friend’s recent encounter with them so graphically and heart-breakingly illustrates, for all their power to effect positive change, words used carelessly, recklessly or maliciously have an equally unparalleled ability to inflict pain, leave permanent emotional and psychological scars and, on occasion, destroy the spirit, if not the very life, of their recipients. Indeed, modern day media is teeming with stories of young people who, due to their sexuality, ethnicity, personality, religious beliefs, appearance or simply their uniqueness, have been forced to endure unrelenting verbal, social media and text message abuse. Some of them, tragically, have decided that taking their own life is the only way out – the only way to silence the poison-tipped verbal darts. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe, instead, as uncomfortable as it is for us, we should pause to consider the impact words and phrases like – “You’re a failure” “I’m ashamed of you” “You’re a slut” “You’re a fag/lesbo” “You’re ugly” “You’re a freak” “You’re fat” “You’re a nut case” “You’re crazy” “You’re retarded” – can have on the sensitive, if not already fragile spirit/psyche of a “just-wanting-to-feel-like-I’m-loved-and-I-belong” middle or high school student – and even on adults. I mean it: I want you to actually take a moment and imagine those words (or words like them) being seared into your soul.
I’m reasonably confident none of us would consider playing with a loaded firearm or a stick of dynamite for that matter – anymore than we would cavalierly toss around a machete or a hand grenade. Instead, fully cognizant of their inherent danger and power to injure, we would be careful to treat all of the above with the respect they deserve. And so it should be with the words we choose to direct at others – and at ourselves. We simply must start being more cognizant and respectful of the potentially life-altering power of our words. We must be more prudent in how and when we use them and more thoughtful of the impact they are likely to have (and the feelings they are likely to engender) in their intended recipients – before, not after, we utter them. We fail to do so at a potentially “irremediable” cost to those who, like my friend, already are struggling to deem themselves worthy of goodness, kindness and love. That’s simply too high a price to pay. All of us can do better. We must do better – and we must stand up and be counted when others fail to do so in our presence. Remaining silent is not an option. Hearts (and lives) quite literally are hanging in the balance.