It was an ultimate comeback to childhood taunts. I can picture myself now as I chanted it; my head thrown back, nose stuck proudly in the air, voice carrying every speck of authority I could muster. 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!'
I would march away after this proclamation, pretending not to hear the continued words hurled toward my back. 'Skinnybones! Beanpole! You must have to run around in the shower to get wet!'
My fourth grade classmates were not throwing stones, so I was allegedly unaffected. Mother and my teacher assured me that as long as no physical violence ensued, I would be just fine.
I was not so sure. As I grew into my teenage years, even a suddenly changing public taste for leanness could not convince me it was okay to be the beanpole I'd been steadily told I was. Add to that the teasing I got about talking too fast, being 'smart,' needing glasses (which I refused to wear), not being able to catch a ball (which I couldn’t see...), and I wound up feeling I was well below par. Sticks and stones had not been thrown, but youthful words had wounded.
I'm now many years past fourth grade, and my friends are grownups. We don't throw sticks and stones, and of course adults never hurl wounding words at one another.
I have been thinking about this, and of what I've seen words do. Over the years, I have watched as words built and severed relationships, marred reputations, and thoroughly changed lives. I'm paying closer attention to my own speech these days, and to the conversations in which I engage. Here is one (fictional) example of some word power I've observed:
Sarah and Jo are talking about their new neighbor, Anne. She's nice, says Jo, even if she is a bit quirky. 'Quirky?' asks Sarah, curious about Jo's description.
Oh, you know, says Jo. 'Just those eccentric traits. Like, oh you know.... going out to church every morning, and Kathy saw her there once in a veil. A veil! Like it was 1942!' Kathy, a Catholic neighbor, has told Jo that veils in church are ridiculous in this day and age. 'But Anne means well,' adds Jo. 'Bless her heart. And it's nice to finally have a new family in that old house. Even if there are so many of them that who knows how they all fit?' Jo and Sarah both laugh at that one. The neighborhood has been abuzz with news of the new couple and their SEVEN children.
Comments like Jo's could not possibly bother Anne, who has no idea that this conversation has even taken place. So these words can't hurt her. Can they?
I suggest that yes, even when unheard by the 'victim,' such words can.
Sarah begins to notice the things Jo mentioned, and then a few more besides. Without realizing it, she starts being annoyed by the way Anne talks. That funny regional accent and the high pitched laugh. And the piety Sarah had actually been drawn to until Jo labeled it 'fanaticism.' At the last minute, Sarah decides against inviting Anne to the book club she's starting. After all, Anne probably wouldn't fit in. Sarah points out a few of Anne's traits to her husband, and then to another couple who join them for dinner one evening. They have a few laughs.
Without even knowing why, Anne starts feeling shunned. She's excluded from a book club where she could have made a few new friends. Sticks and stones have not been thrown, but words have truly hurt her.
We have all seen the power of words, for good and for bad. Sometimes I think we'll see the full effects of them only in Eternity. 'I tremble to think that I have to give an account of my tongue,' wrote St. Faustina. 'There is life, but there is also death in the tongue.... I have known a person who, when she learned from someone that a certain thing was being said about her, fell seriously ill. She lost a good deal of blood and shed many tears, and the outcome was very sad. It was not the sword that did all this, but the tongue. O my silent Jesus, have mercy on us!'
Have mercy on us, indeed. May we have grace to put away our whispered sticks, our spoken stones.
This post was originally published on Suscipio, 2012
Painting: Eugene de Blaas, The Friendly Gossips