Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Remember that old rhyme from your youth? Generations of mothers have taught these words to their children, their little feelings hurt by the stinging words of a classroom bully. Its sing-song cadence stuck in my vulnerable head, an imaginary shield against Big Bad Words.
I remember it like it was yesterday, though over 20 years have passed. Paralyzed, I stared at the angry scrawl on lined paper, blinking back tears.
I’ve since read about the physical aspects of a person going into shock: quickened pulse, clammy skin, dizziness, nausea. I felt all of those things years ago as unkind words leapt off the page and into my teenage heart, stinging and scarring like tiny daggers. Pausing to re-read the lines that had been blurred by my watery eyes, I tried too late to wipe a fat drop from my cheek before it slid off of my chin and onto the trembling hand in my lap.
The power of words is immense, able to hurt or heal, depending on the deliverer. They can be twisted into many forms, each with its own complexity. A poem. An exaggeration. A white lie. A vow. A confession. Song lyrics that speak to one’s soul. Is there any sound more soothing than a mother’s loving voice, comforting her child? Any moment more exquisite than hearing your darling whisper “I love you”? Strong people with the gift of words can spread love or fuel hatred; think of the influence of the passionate speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Adolf Hitler.
Words can change a mind. They can change a life. They can change the world.
Truthfully, words are merely the vehicle with which to deliver what’s inside a person. They can provide a tricky disguise, the perfect camouflage for a coward in moments of insecurity or rage. In the hands of an enemy, they can become a weapon that does more damage than a bomb. To be on the receiving end of the attack, as I was all those years ago, left me feeling helpless. Victimized. Defensive. Heartbroken.
The effect of hostile words can be stronger than a punch to the gut—and the pain lasts much longer…I can still feel it.
As an adult, I’m shocked at what is deemed acceptable communication, particularly in today’s digital world (where it’s quite easy to hide anonymously behind a keyboard).
What makes a person believe they have the right to steal another person’s happiness with harsh words? To believe themselves somehow entitled to openly make ignorant judgments on another’s life? What happened to “think before you speak”?
The poison of evil words can spread easily into anxious thoughts of self-doubt, which swirled around my head for at least a week after I read The Letter. I wish someone had told me then what it took me years to learn through painful experience: I didn’t have to allow those words to affect me.
In my not-so-distant past, a messy divorce landed me on the receiving end of a constant stream of hateful language.
Even then, I knew that we were two deeply wounded individuals, that he felt desperate and backed into a corner. I didn’t fight back—and worse, I didn’t stand up for myself. I felt myself drowning in a shower of negativity that crept into my own beliefs. My therapist did her best to point out my own role in this cycle. I nodded dutifully as she repeated, time and time again, that it was his choice to use those words—but it was my choice to listen.
It took two years of therapy to move away from my self-inflicted victim role and learn to take authority over my feelings. I can only be accountable for my own actions, including how I react to the actions of others.
Had I know this as an insecure teen, I would have torn the offending letter into a hundred pieces and let the evil it contained flutter into the trash, where it belonged.
I would have let it go.
Sure, I could have put my heart and soul into a response—defended myself, tried to change the author’s opinions. I could have stooped to that same lowly level and stitched a well-worded counter with as much anger and ill intent as was put into the initial verbal attack. But what good would that do?
Looking back, I view the experience with new eyes. I feel sorry for the author, sympathetic that the need to make a point was tarnished by anger, failing miserably in the delivery. Sad that she’d held something inside until it turned ugly and mean and then chose to dump it onto me. I’m sure she felt better afterward, those evil words expelled from her body like an exorcised spirit. But just because they were spoken didn’t make the words true.
Yes, I’ve been guilty of using language to my benefit, to manipulate words to get my desired response. I’ve spoken without thinking, spent hours wishing I could go back in time to reword my feelings. I’ve said too much when I shouldn’t have. I’ve said nothing when I should have spoken up. I’ve learned from experience that some of the most powerful words are the most difficult to say: “I’m sorry.”
But if words are a reflection of what is inside a person, I can choose to let the negativity end with them.
The issues of the other person fueled that particular confrontation in my teenage years. A word is a mighty tool, but not everyone uses it wisely.
I’m reminded of a line from Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: “Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.”
I’ve been blessed with the ability to occasionally string words into something meaningful…and I choose to use my powers for good.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Terri Tremblett/Editor: Bryonie Wise