“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” While this adage has been oft-repeated [and presumed to be true because of its widespread use and awareness] since it first appeared in The Christian Recorder [source: Wikipedia], we have to ask/wonder — is it mostly true or mostly false? Do words affect us or not? How deeply?
Given the era the above adage was first published, and the publisher — the African Methodist Episcopal Church - it seems possible that it was coined to mange slaves and former slaves. After all the possibility of retaliation against slave owners because of indignities and injustices suffered under their roofs was probably on the minds of every slave and slave owner. It would have seemed prudential for authorities to try and prevent slave uprisings by using words to soothe negative feelings and thoughts of slaves directed toward their masters. What better way than to preach the adage that words can never hurt you? This adage may have seemed like a pithy interpretation of Luke 6:29: “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.”
But in the long run, the adage may simply have provided cover for continuing the depersonalization of certain persons well beyond the day in 1865, when the US House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in America. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”. These words certainly mattered! But were they strong enough to redirect negative attitudes lingering within the hearts of former slaves hurt by the injustice of slavery? Were the words strong enough to convince former slave owners that depersonalization of slaves — via slavery — was morally wrong because it divested someone of his/her human characteristics or individuality — for purely selfish reasons?
What about us? How do we depersonalize others today? One has to consider just how our words — past and present — affect others — long after they were said or shouted out. Personally, I believe that words really do matter. Too many times we have allowed our words to escape from our mouths before giving enough thought to the effect — future and present — on the hearer of our words. While our words can’t break any bones, they can and do break hearts and spirits which are nearly impossible to repair or restore to their original state. Ask married couples headed for the divorce courts whether words mattered! For that matter, ask any person who has been chided by another whether the words mattered. How many of us decide to dislike someone just because of the words coming out of their mouths?
I plead guilty to letting words fall idly out of my mouth without giving thought to their effect on someone else — all too often. Fortunately, I haven’t mortally wounded any of our children or husband yet, but the opportunity to do so keeps rearing its ugly head, now and then, when I use words too loosely or offensively. Recently, I was reminded again how quickly words depersonalize someone.
Last Saturday, a neighbor from several streets over knocked on our door to deliver a dressing down on how we failed to trim our trees at the right time of the year. The previous day we had been notified by the city that another person — or perhaps this Saturday’s tree hugger — had called city hall to complain that we were cutting down too many trees in our yard! The neighbor inferred that we were doing great harm to the environment and that we didn’t care one hoot for trees. Fortunately, in our defense, we had sought and received the advice of the city forester prior to cutting/trimming the trees. He had counseled us that if these trees were in his yard, he would cut them down since they were junk trees — meaning they had shallow roots, were easily broken by high winds, constantly dropped excessive numbers of twigs /small branches and were prone to disease and bug infestation. His advice provided cover for us as we cut down 9 trees and pruned several others rather heavily. This proved to be too much vengeance against trees for our neighbor and so she came knocking on Saturday. She did not identify herself by name, other than telling me she lived several blocks away. Neither did she welcome us to the neighborhood or ask our names, even though we had just moved into this obviously tree loving neighborhood. She opaquely accused me of being uninformed and uncaring about the trees — but not in these same words — to my face. Her accusatory words stung in part because we normally regard ourselves as trying to be well informed, responsible, and good neighbors. Both her presence and words — highly depersonalized — tempted me go to the: “I don’t like her” place in my head, despite knowing nothing about her. Thus my response was just as cold and depersonalized as her approach. Afterwards, it became clear, just how quickly I can actually dislike someone simply because of the words they say.
All too often, many of us seem to be programmed to depersonalize other people after hearing something we don’t like. So we easily write the person off especially after discussing matters pertaining to politics, childrearing, personal beliefs, and faith and religion. This scenario happens over and over again on main stream talk radio, TV programs, and social media. We have fallen into the trap of labeling people [a form of depersonalization] and deciding to not like someone because of his or her ideas or words. I recall a chastity speaker describing the way he used to date. He admitted to hoping that each first date could come and go without having much to say about anything. He used to wish that he and his date would just have fun without much conversation because — while the date looked fine, smelled fine, walked fine — as soon as she opened her mouth to talk about things, things were usually not so fine. He would quickly lose interest in her. He admitted that this way of dating defined depersonalization to the tee; he also admitted that dating did not work out so well for him. By way of contrast, Dana Perino, author of And the Good News Is…, rises above the desire to depersonalize others as she writes: “In America, we are blessed with the freedom to speak our minds — and we should do so thoughtfully. We also have to recognize that people who disagree with us are not enemies. We are all in this together — and we should act like it. “ I like her words; I like Dana.
As we consider Holy Week, we should try and go far beyond our own litmus test for whom we like or don’t like. We should remind ourselves of the commandment to love others as ourselves; this commandment was given to us by the very Son of Man who was condemned to death for his words and ideas. But he accepted that injustice for our sakes and did not resort to hate — or depersonalization — ever!
Coming full circle to the age-old adage about sticks and stones - I find it to be mostly false. In fact, I think that this adage helps us blame others for faults we commit in and through our words. I think it helps us to set aside personal responsibility for what we say and how we say things. Perhaps it fuels our desires to say what we want, when we want, and to whom we want without having to experience consequences for things we say and do. And it allows us to ignore the great wisdom that reminds us that even though “we have the right to do a thing, this is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” [G. K. Chesterton] [The First Amendment to the US Constitution states that Congress shall make no law...abridging freedom of speech]
Take a few minutes to think about the advice from Chesterton. Recall times when you followed that advice and times when you didn’t. What were the consequences? Reflect on this warning from G. K. Chesterton: “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils. They differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”
All too often, we choose not to like someone because of words said. That is what I did last Saturday. I depersonalized a neighbor because I didn’t like the words coming out of her mouth. And then I made excuses for why I responded the way I did. I even dubbed her the tree hugger — in this very article — as if there is something wrong with being one! And I allowed this sin — this evil — to be excusable — at least for the moment.
Let’s experience Holy Week disavowing the desire to allow an inexcusable evil to become an excusable one. Let’s choose to love as Christ loves — authentically and without condition.