Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I dithered a bit about whether or not to post this to my personal or my political blog. You can see where it ended up! Even though it touches on the political, it really is personal to me and, I think, to many others. And it was inspired in part by another blog I read this morning.

You see, despite protests from certain political arenas, words really do matter. Although many of us were raised on the sing-song mantra of children everywhere, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me," those of us who have been wounded by words know the truth.

We may never have exhibited casts or bruises for the world to see, but our spirits - our psyches - have suffered damage. In some cases, it can be repaired; in other cases, the victims don't - can't - find their way out of the pain and so take their own life or the lives of others. But a CAT scan of our emotional selves would still find the lingering scars in the same way that an experienced eye can tell that a bone has at one time suffered a break, or lungs still bear the scars of pneumonia.

Words live on in our brains just as memories do, and words - as with memories - can be triggered by unexpected events or circumstances, often reopening those old wounds, even if just momentarily.

I have a younger sister whom I love with all my heart. She's enough younger (four years) and we grew up with interests different enough that there was no real reason for us to ever be compared to each other. We had different friends and never went to the same school at the same time. But within our extended family we were frequently referred to as "the pretty one," and "the smart one." The truth is, we were both attractive girls and young women, and both had - and have - above-average intelligence.

But I grew up thinking my only currency in life was my looks. This led, over the years, to some bad choices and to behaviors that can only be described as destructive. Imagine my surprise when I entered college as an adult and discovered how smart I really am! I'm prouder than a woman my age should be of my 4.0 GPA in college, and still get a thrill when someone acknowledges my intelligence in even the most oblique way.

My beloved sister, on the other hand, grew up feeling that she was playing second fiddle to the sister everyone described as "pretty." She made good grades, she pushed herself to excel in ways that still astound me, and - while I would hesitate to speak on her behalf - I suspect that she, too, found ways to validate herself that weren't particularly healthy. Frankly, I've always though she is beautiful - well, ever since I stopped thinking she was "cute" - and, although our looks have faded, as they are wont to do with the passage of years, neither of us could be described even today as unattractive. Okay, maybe when we first wake up in the morning...

The other wounding word was "fat." I am a large woman; there's no getting around it. I'm larger today than I've ever been, and the word "fat" can still cause me anxiety, but as a young girl and a teenager, I felt fat. What I didn't know then is that the people who referred to me that way were expressing their own insecurities and that it really had nothing to do with me. Until I was pregnant with my first child, I can't find even one photograph of myself where I would be considered fat. Tall, yes. Big-boned (my mom's favorite appellation), yes. But not fat.

(My mother's constant use of the phrase "big-boned" was finally validated when I was in my 40s and had my first bone density test. It turns out that I do have "big bones": my bone density is 125% of normal! With the history of osteoporosis in my family, "big boned" is my favorite thing to be!)

Moving away from the personal, how many news reports have we heard in the past few years about people killing themselves or others because of words? How many young people have lashed out violently after years of being bullied?

Four-eyes. Stupid. Ugly. Cripple. Fat. Queer. Crater face.

I'm not trying to use this forum to point a finger and say that the young man who committed the crimes in Tucson, AZ on Saturday was directed to do that by anyone. But I am saying that when we use inflammatory language there will be consequences. Sometimes the consequences are damaging only to the individual; it's internalized and a life is changed in some way. But sometimes the consequences are damaging to others. We can't know who hears our words and perceives them as a call to action. We need to appreciate that inflammatory words create a climate that elicits more inflammatory words, and that climate then can - and sometimes will - reach a state where words are no longer enough. Where some other kind of action feels necessary. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (NIV)

We share our planet, our nation, our states, our cities, our communities with people who may not always be able to distinguish between rhetoric and a call to action. There are mentally and emotionally fragile people among us; people who cannot be counted on to know that we "didn't really mean it that way."

I am resolved to use kinder words. I may not always be successful, and I will not turn away from a good and enlightening discussion or argument. But I can be kinder. I have never suffered name-calling (you can ask my kids!), but now I will work to guard against words that can engender hatred and anger. I hope I can encourage others to do the same.

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