Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sticks And Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It may be one of the oldest adages in the English language. It is almost certainly one of the most common. When I was a kid, it was usually used in a defensive manner. The child being taunted would reply with some variation of this adage to indicate that the taunts were not having the desired effect. This was not always entirely true - sometimes it was more like whistling past the graveyard or warding off the evil eye than an actual statement of fact - but it was still generally being used as a shield. It might have been closer to, “I hope your words don’t hurt me,” than to, “your words can’t hurt me,” but, in either case, it was being expressed by the person on the receiving end of the words. That does not seem to be the case anymore. It might just be my own perspective - it is rather difficult to measure these things - but it seems to be more of an admonition than a shield these days. Rather than being expressed by the person receiving the words, the adage is now often coming from some external source, sometimes even the same external source as the originally offending words. Instead of being used to say, “Your words can’t hurt me,” it is being used to say, “My words can’t hurt you. Toughen up. Stop complaining.”

Something seems to have gotten lost in the translation.

I have to admit that I am somewhat torn on this one. On the one hand, it is not literally true. Words can hurt, and they can hurt a great deal. Words can kill. On the other hand, the damage that words can do is based in the power that we give to them. If you get hit in the head with a rock, it is probably going to hurt, regardless of any belief you might have to the contrary. Words, though, can only hurt you if you believe that they can hurt you, so learning how to deprive them of that ability is definitely a good thing. The trouble is, that is something that has to be learned. It’s not automatic, and it is not a skill that can be gained simply by being told to gain it.

I’ve been hit by a few sticks in my time - as a rural child of the 70’s and 80’s, it would be more unusual if that wasn’t true - and I’ve probably even caught a rock or two. I know I was hit in the head once with a brick, but that was an accident, and it was a small brick. Only a piece of a brick, really, but it still hurt. Nothing broken, though. I have been very fortunate in that regard. I’ve had the usual assortment of sprains, cuts, and bruises, but I’ve never actually broken anything. I came close once playing street football - I’m pretty sure that wasn’t supposed to be a tackle game, but those rules were pretty fluid - but so far, so good. I still have all of my factory parts and, while they are older and definitely more worn, they are still whole and under original specs.

Sticks and stones may have more immediate impact, but words have nearly killed me. I suspect, in this modern world, that words may cause more frequent harm than sticks and stones. We have become a fairly peaceful society - which is commendable, no complaints there - so it is very likely that many people in our culture can now go through an entire life without being on the receiving end of physical violence. I doubt that even a single person has yet had the good fortune of avoiding all verbal violence. We’re just not there yet. To make matters worse, those who are most likely to receive verbal abuse are also the ones who are least able to defend against it: the children, the infirm, the uneducated, the innocent. If you truly believe that words can’t harm, you’ve never watched the fact of a child being told he is unwelcome and unwanted. Words can kill.

It is a matter of perspective, of course. If you live in a war zone and have to take heroic measures every day just to survive, words may not seem terribly important to you, and that would be entirely justified. You would have more pressing concerns to worry about. What people often forget, though, is that “things could be worse” does not actually mean “things are not bad.” Those are two separate ideas that are not necessarily related to each other. Having an open wound may not be as bad as losing a limb, but you still treat the wound appropriately. You don’t ignore it because someone else has a worse wound. If there are multiple issues going on at once then you have to perform triage and deal with the problems in order of severity. This does not mean that the less severe issue is not important, only that it may not be as important at the moment.

Anything that can kill you is pretty important. Dodging bullets is more important than dodging words, but, as a happy recipient of that more peaceful society, I am in a good place to understand that less important can still be important. Instead of making excuses about how much worse things can be, we have an ideal opportunity to work on making things better.

Removing the sting from words is a great way to reduce the damage of words. I, as a reasonably well adjusted adult who has been around the block more than a few times, have learned through practical experience that, while words have power, the power in words is instilled by the listener, not the speaker. It is a form of magic, but only a very simple form. If I believe your words, or believe in you as you say those words, I give power to those words. Without my belief, however, your words have no power. Without my belief, your words are just air.

If you tell me that I am worthless, and I respect your opinion while also harboring doubts as to my own worth, you words will likely cut to the quick. If you tell me that I am worthless, but only one of those additional factors is true, then I have set up an internal conflict. Which do I believe in more, the positive or the negative? Notice that the power is still based entirely within my own belief. If you tell me that I am worthless, but I neither respect your opinion nor harbor doubts as to my own worth, then your words are meaningless. They can do nothing and have served no purpose. Why would I care if someone I know to be a liar tell me I have $3 when I am looking at four?

Do you see how that works? It is so simple that it is one of the hardest things in human experience to master. People believe that it must be more difficult, so they make it more difficult. The words of another person aimed at you have exactly as much power as you give them, no more and no less.

This is a fact, but it is a fact that only works in your favor if you understand it, and most people do not understand it. We are born ignorant, knowing nothing, and we must receive all knowledge in that early stage from external sources. These external sources have great power because we need them to have that power. They provide all meaning because we have none. As we learn, if we learn, we take that power into ourselves. We develop our own ability to assign meaning, and even to teach meaning, but, while we are learning, we are vulnerable. In the beginning. the student assumes that anything from the teacher must be true, and so imparts the power of truth to the teacher’s words. The wise teacher knows this, and guards against the flaws inherent in such a system, while also teaching the student to see for herself. In time, the student becomes a teacher and the cycle repeats. Round and round and round we go, where she stops, nobody can know.

Everyone is potentially a teacher. Unfortunately, not everyone is necessarily a wise teacher. Some people never learn the secret behind words and go right on empowering their own harm, sometimes right up until it kills them. Words can kill, but only if you let them. Take away their power and you take away their danger. You can’t do that for someone else, though, only for yourself. We’re all walking a different path across the same landscape, and we each have no way of knowing where someone else is along the journey. Don’t assume that someone else has learned something because you have learned it. Your words can have consequences, whether you believe in them or not.

Words have power, but it is power that we give them. Learn your power so that words can’t hurt you, but guard your words so that they don’t hurt someone who is still learning. The more we apply these two lessons, the less we will need them. Imagine the day.

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