“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” An old English nursery rhyme, this phrase was rumored to have been born somewhere near the early 1860s. It is a popular phrase we all know well, meant to act as a shield of sorts against taunts. But regardless of how many times this chant is repeated, no matter how often it is said, or spread, or promised … it continues to be a boldfaced lie. Because words can hurt. They do hurt – someone, somewhere, every day; and today, they hurt me.
It is funny because I totally didn’t see it coming, this – verbal slap in the face. But it did. And it stung. It’s ironic what a punch a few strung-together letters can pack; enough to make me tear up at least. The thing is, the words that hit us hardest aren’t necessarily even untrue … just unexpected. Sometimes (as in my case today) they are too true – something we weren’t ready to face, something we didn’t think anyone noticed, something we were working on that obviously needs more work. I think it is the truths and not the untruths that cut me the deepest. I can handle defense when I know what isn’t real, but the pain of acknowledging what you didn’t want someone else to see? That’s rough. So yes, I disagree completely with the “sticks and stones” mantra. Words don’t hurt–they scar. They dig deep and plant strong roots that are sometimes hard to overcome or forgive ourselves for. Whether invoked or spoken, deserved or deprecating, words are power personified, and thus must be spoken with care.
A few months ago, when studying the Holocaust, I did an activity with my students to illustrate this. I asked them to anonymously write down the worst thing that had ever been said to them, crumple it up, and toss the paper into the middle of the circle. I never ask my kids to do anything I wouldn’t be willing to share myself … I don’t believe in building walls when I am always trying so desperately to tear theirs down. So, I began the activity by sharing my own word-induced pain. After, each crumpled piece took its turn reviving the reality that words are dangerous, damaging things indeed. Whether a threat, or a cuss, a demeaning term or a crushed dream, each small string of letters raked raw their pride, and soon, tears and hugs were the language shared. It was a very powerful experience, and I’d like to say my own expressions were always so noble … but they are not.
I have to admit, though on the receiving end today, I am not innocent in this war of words. I too have commenced battle and done more than my share of damage with angry terms spouted in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, being quick to the draw with a comeback leaves you with more regret than satisfaction. Like the smoke and sound that follow the shot of a gun, words too have a lasting essence. They are not so easily dissipated, and though I might try to wave them away as if they don’t matter … they do. I read that the 13th century Persian poet Rumi once said, “Silence is the language of God.” If this is true, then silence is divine … and unfortunately, my relationship with words has too often revolved around having the last one.
As awful as it is to be on the receiving end, I think that sometimes it is good to be reminded of this power from the painful side. When I’m in a battle of wits it is too easy to dismiss the repercussions of my sarcasm, but when words wound … I remember to use them with care. Author Markus Zusak stated poetically, “I have hated words, and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” So, every time I find myself on the other end of the sparring – every time I gain another verbal scar that leaves me speechless, I am going to try to find an ounce of peace in knowing that maybe, just maybe, it kept me from one more “last word” I won’t have to regret.