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Words can hurt more than sticks and stones

Published: 
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS

I’m known to have a sharp tongue. A hot-mouth is what they called me and so over the years I’ve laboured on maturing in that area and, well, I’m still enrolled.

I own books like Words That Hurt, Words That Heal by Carole Mayhall, Me and My Big Mouth by Joyce Meyer, When to Speak Up and When To Shut Up by Dr Michael Sedler, and many other titles in that genre of life-changing-through-tongue-taming literature for the filthy mouth.

Bible quotes such as James 3:8, “But the tongue can no man tame, it is an unruly evil full of deadly poison” have been my daily prompt. And in the Proverbs, I’ve found an instructive one that says, “When words are many sin is not absent.”

My bend to change has come from personal convictions about my sometimes ungraciousness, but the hurt placed on me by the mouths of others has provided impetus. Very early I learned that the idiom “Sticks and stones may break my bones (but words will never hurt me)” is a lie, a ploy to get children to deflect hurtful criticism/slander. Words have hurt me more than lashes in this life. As an eight-year-old I was told by a classmate that I was “as poor as a ‘sursh’ (church) rat” (sic)” and, while I had not as yet recognised the abject poverty in which I lived, she ensured I appreciated her malevolence, telling me in the presence of laughing schoolmates, “You have no fwigze (sic), you eh hah no TV and yuh does iron on a coal pot.”

That really hurt and I think I would have preferred to fight and lose than to be smacked down with such an insult.

It seemed not our fault for being without those appliances—we had no electricity until 1978—but in an effort to understand my hurt, I went home and asked my mother if I was poor.

In her calmest voice she enquired why I wanted to know and I repeated the incident. Hmm. Lawd. If you only knew my mother’s pride level, eh! Her black face seemed a bluish purple as she leaned into me, and with a voice belying the cool demeanour of one minute before, she bellowed, “Yuh have somewhere to sleep? Yuh have clothes? You eat food today?”

I doubt if she heard my answers, but having responded to each question, she then declared, “Well then, you not poor. Go back and tell her that you have beauty and brains and that is all you need to carry you through life.”

My mother shielded me with her wisdom. Her uncomplicated philosophy has buoyed my entire life. But I learned children could be brutal and words cut deep.

Now, with a recovering mouth, and smarting from the punishing I’ve had from the mouths of others, I’m circumspect about the power of words. Words hurt more than sticks and stones and do irreparable damage. Whether it’s under the ruse of picong, gossip, salvo, or exposè, all words that are damaging cause long-term injury.

Those uttered publicly and particularly in politics and open forums, which are then repeated ad infinitum, I know, contribute to the instability in societies.

And, this place is steeped with abuses, which seem bent to character assassination and as we continue to underestimate the destructive power of words, in nursery-rhyme conjecture, London Bridge is falling down—and right on top of us.

It seems that slander, provoking accusations, and all manner of cruelty are the chosen paths of expression here, where, in the words of former US President Barack Obama, we “treat name-calling as reasoned debate” and infuse “suspicion and fear of those who appear different to us” either by class, ethnicity or partisanship.

The wilfulness of our intent in using words as weapon is to break each other’s back. This is a most unfortunate juncture in our affairs. But, now, who is going to help us heal? Who will lead my headless nation into the reintegration of community spirit where we can regain living in neighbourly repose, where kindness is worn as our garment of tolerance?

As I consider the health of our nation, as I look at the death and mayhem each morning on the news, I remember the words uttered here, on more than one occasion also, by high office holders and contenders, that “blood will flow.” As I consider my own experience recently where I overheard someone describe me as “ mental”; as I estimate the pain that such ignorance and bigotry can cause, I can only appeal to us to learn to suspend judgment especially the judgment that pronounces with hurtful words.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited version of a feature published as How do we recover from words that hurt? on Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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