This week in different contexts I have been coming across the references to the harmful affect of words on others, but before I get too carried away, allow me to introduce Michael Josephson who delivers short homilies on ethics on radio stations in the united states and has a website called www.charactercounts.com I have subscribed to his weekly digest of his Commentaries and they often give me a lift. He never deals with religion per se but concentrates on right and honest living. Well this weeks digest contains to commentaries that I’d like to share with you. But I recommend you visit the website and subscribe yourself to it, they are worthwhile reading.
I don't think a week has gone by in the past ten years when at least one of my young daughters (the eldest is 12) hasn't come to me sobbing because one of her sisters was being mean or called her a name.
Sometimes I investigate the problem and, where appropriate, discipline the name-caller and counsel the wounded child to "toughen her up." More often, I give the complaint short shrift telling my complaining child to "work it out," "suck it up" or "get over it." Occasionally, I've trotted out the old wisdom, "Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names will never harm you."
Recently, I was reminded this isn't true. One of my dear daughters said some mean and hurtful things that made a classmate cry. The teacher assured me my daughter's unkind remarks did indeed cause serious emotional pain.
I wondered whether my callousness to unkind sibling interaction encouraged my daughter to wound another child.
The truth is, thoughtless and malicious insults, teasing and gossip inflict deeper and more enduring pain on more people than guns or knives. Ask anyone who as a kid was fat, skinny, unusually short or tall, flat-chested or big-busted, acne-faced, unathletic, slow-witted or exceptionally smart. In schoolrooms and playgrounds across the country, weight, height, looks and intelligence are much more likely to be the subject of ridicule than race or religion.
Words are enormously powerful. And while we should try to fortify our children's sense of self-worth so they can bear insults and sarcasm, declaring words harmless won't make them so.
Intentionally or carelessly hurting someone's feelings isn't a small thing. If we have to resort to ancient wisdom, we'd be better off with: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.
*I'd like to illustrate the point of this commentary with real examples. If you are willing to share (for posting on our website) a story of a situation where someone's words inflicted a lasting and serious pain on you or someone you know, please send the story to firstname.lastname@example.org and indicate whether you want your name used with the story or published without attribution.
When my daughter was confronted with the fact that she had really hurt another child with a mean comment, she cried and immediately wanted to apologize. That was a good thing, but I wanted her to know an apology can't always make things better. So I told her the parable of Will, a nine-year-old whose father abandoned his mom two years earlier. Will was angry, and he often would lash out at others with hurtful words. He once told his mom, "I see why Dad left you!"
Unable to cope with his outbursts of cruelty, she sent Will to spend the summer with his grandparents. His grandfather's strategy to help Will learn self-control was to make him go into the garage and pound a two-inch-long nail into a four-by-four board every time he said a mean and nasty thing. For a small boy, this was a major task, but he couldn't return until the nail was all the way in. After about ten trips to the garage, Will began to be more cautious about his words. Eventually, he even apologized for all the bad things he'd said.
That's when his grandmother came in. She made him bring in the board filled with nails and told him to pull them all out. This was even harder than pounding them in, but after a huge struggle, he did it.
His grandmother hugged him and said, "I appreciate your apology and, of course, I forgive you because I love you, but I want you to know an apology is like pulling out one of those nails. Look at the board. The holes are still there. The board will never be the same. I know your dad put a hole in you, but please don't put holes in other people; you are better than that."
*A fourth-grade teacher recently told me how she tells this story to her class in the beginning of the semester and uses it throughout the year. When she comes upon a child saying or doing a mean or unkind thing, she will say, "Did you put a nail in someone?" Then she`ll ask, "Did you take it out?"
She says her students always know what she`s talking about and recognize what they did was wrong, which isn`t always the case if she simply asks the child what happened (that usually results in a string of blaming everyone else).
She urges her students not to use the automatic "That`s all right" after an apology because usually what was done was not all right and the person saying it, rightfully, doesn`t feel it was all right. She tells her class to say "I accept your apology" or "I forgive you" instead.
The teacher also uses the story to help her kids understand difficult family matters outside the classroom. She tells them some people will never take out the nails they`ve pounded into the children, but everyone has the power to pull them out themselves and get on with their life rather than let others rule them.
She told me, "The story is simple, but the message is powerful -- especially when reinforced with: "You`re better than that!"
This is Michael Josephson, reminding you that character counts.
Reading my textbook on health education – I was studying a chapter on School Violence and Bullying and was surprised to read their definition of “Violence” which reached far beyond my limited perspective on the matter – it read as follows: “All violent acts have a single common theme: They all inflict harm, “or threaten harm” to a person or property. Although the term violence usually invokes the thought of physical harm, non physical acts such as teasing, insulting, ignoring or demeaning gestures or facial expressions, all hold the power to make the recipient feel hurt, disrespected and devalued.” (Rosen E. and Weinstein E., Teaching children about health: 2nd Edition 2003:
I couldn’t help thinking, I wish I knew that when I was at school. I think the two commentaries I included above puts the issue in a nut shell. The Bible puts it this way:
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.
Proverbs 18:21, New International Version
Another scripture which springs to mind when this topic is discussed is James 3:1-12
My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers. Why? Because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly than other people. 2We all make many mistakes. If there were a person who never said anything wrong, then that person would be perfect. A person like that would be able to control their whole body, too. 3We put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us. With these bits in the horses’ mouths, we can control their whole body. 4It is the same with ships. A ship is very big, and it is pushed by strong winds. But a very small rudder controls that big ship. The man who controls the rudder decides where the ship will go. The ship goes where the man wants. 5It is the same with our tongue. It is a small part of the body, but it boasts about doing great things.
A big forest fire can be started with only a little flame. 6The tongue is like a fire. It is a world of evil among the parts of our body. How? The tongue spreads its evil through our whole body. It starts a fire that influences all of life. The tongue gets this fire from hell. 7People can tame every kind of wild animal, bird, reptile, and fish. People have already tamed all these things. 8But no person can tame (control) the tongue. It is wild and evil. It is full of poison that can kill. 9We use our tongues to praise our Lord and Father (God), but then we curse (say bad things to) people. And God made those people like himself. 10Those praises and curses come from the same mouth! My brothers and sisters, this should not happen. 11Do good water and bad water flow from the same spring? No! 12My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree make olives? No! Can a grapevine make figs? No! And a well full of salty water cannot give good water.
“Easy to Read Version”
I was just thinking about that saying that we have all repeated at some point: Sticks and stones make break my bones but words will never harm me: and as Michael points out, this saying no matter how often it is repeated, will never be true. Ironically I think the converse may be true in part, in the sense that broken bones eventually heal, but spiritual/emotional wounds will not heal so easily. (They do heal but, they are more enduring.) I was just thinking about the first person who ever said that to another person – Well no-one will know who that was, as it was never recorded but must have happened many years ago. The point is, I’m sure if we could call that person back today and ask him or her about the occasion on which these illustrious words were first uttered, and ask the speaker if he or she really believed them at the time. We can never know, but my guess is, no, probably not. My guess is that someone had said something hateful and hurtful, and in a futile attempt to shield himself/herself against them responded with this now famous saying.
Words do harm and leave gaping wounds that need treatment as much as a physical wound needs. Words like “You are stupid!”, thick, dumb, retard, spastic, sissy, etc. are more than just mean – they are dangerous. I was reading a Christian magazine this week and I read a letter from a lady who signs herself desparate Mom. She was explaining in her letter about her teenage daughter who has some disabilities but a few things in this sad letter jumped out at me: I quote:
“Unfortunately, children are very cruel. She is teased a lot and because she is such a sensitive spirit, she is easily hurt. “
Firstly I’d like to say to this mother, she does not have to excuse her daughter’s feelings. It is normal to feel hurt when someone teases you. The teasing must stop.
“Teachers also treat her differently…. They presume she is ‘stupid when she is not.”
What did the teacher say to the mother to make her think that? Did the teacher come out and say, “Your daughter is stupid.” Probably not, but he or she may have said much the same thing using euphemisms. Changing the words does not always sweeten the pill. I hope that that mother holds on to the fact that her daughter IS NOT STUPID. But what concerns me is what the teacher communicates to the daughter.
“She just needs someone to pay a little bit more attention to her, but it seems everyone is simply trying to keep their distance.”
It’s not only words but unspoken gestures like deliberate ignoring. Talking about a person in their presence, as if they were not there, is very wounding.
The following paragraph was what really concerned me:
“We are part of a church and she loves it. Yet, even there, she is ostracised. She doesn’t go to youth group for fear of being alienated, as she has seen how they look at her during church.”
What an indictment on that Church. I wonder if the pastor is aware of this. If I were the pastor of that church and I realised that this child was in my church, I wonder how I would react? It’s hard to say. But the child is missing out because she is looked at in a certain way. You might be saying to yourself, that child is far too sensitive, and the others probably mean nothing and are not aware that their looks are offending her. Be that as it may, the reality is, especially with people with disabilities that they are keenly aware of how society in general looks at them, and it hurts.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
This is a right that the more vocal component of our society, for obvious reasons consistently and loudly invoke. I have a right to my opinion, and I have a right to express it. I suppose by writing this blog I am making use of this right and am grateful for it, but I have to ask the question, when my right to express my opinion, when that opinion is harmful to other people in society, surely though I have the right to hold the opinion, but maybe not the right to express that opinion. It is not based on any documented evidence that I know of, but it is a guess of mine, that the most legally contested right, in the courts world wide is this particular right – The right to freedom of Expression. As I say, I cannot quote facts or figures, but this is the impression I have from the media. I think of that Englishman who was recently convicted of a crime in
To further illustrate this point I refer to a very current issue in
Talk shows have been discussing the case ad nauseum and the issue as to whether and how the media should cover this trial. As a matter of background it is important to know that Jacob Zuma was leading the Movement for Moral regeneration in
This was reported in all the media and it has confused a nation already wracked (or is that wrecked) by HIV/AIDS with an estimated 5.3 million infected people. People have been phoning helplines and wanting to know whether taking a shower will minimise the risk of contracting the virus.
My personal opinion is that this whole trial should not be reported except to say that it is in progress and when the verdict is announced, that can be made public. But the media people say that they have to report on this trial as it is “in the public interest.” Well, there is no question about it, “The public are interested.” But is it IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST – I hardly think so. How does the proceedings of a case help society in general, let alone the misinformation about AIDS and HIV,. I feel that the Sub Judicae law should be that apart from details of the names of the accused, the nature of the charge, and the name of the court and the presiding judge, all other matters should be sub judice, and even those minimal details can be declared Sub Judicae by the judge if he/she believes it to be necessary. Any media who publicise sub judicae information would be guilty of an offence.
I also think of the “Cartoons of Mohammed” debacle which sparked riots and death and destruction all over the World. The papers claimed “the freedom of expression” – ah but at what cost?
Coming back to a more individual situation, instead of breaking down those around us with our words and wordless actions, let’s rather to edify one another, build up and encourage. Look for the positive aspects in your neighbour and tell them. It has often said that it takes seven positive remarks to outweigh the effect of a negative comment.
Wishing you all a blessed week and Happy Easter everyone.