Before much of the new school year goes by, a child will come home with red, puffy eyes, sagging shoulders and a wounded heart because of some ugly thing someone has said.
I hope no one says to that child, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”
Sticks and stones hurt. Words hurt even more.
Many of us can still be hurt by the memories of nearly every cruel thing someone has said to us. Often, words open wounds that never fully heal.
Because we live in increasingly screen-mediated worlds, we’re tempted to think that images matter more than words and that the visual is more powerful than the oral and the aural.
The current bewildering political season in the United States has made it clear, however, that words have incredible power.
The right words can strengthen us and give us hope: “I love you.” “I understand.” “I believe in you.” “I forgive you.”
The wrong words, though, can weaken us and consign us to a kind of despair: “I am so ashamed of you.” “You make me sick.” “I don’t ever want to see you again.” “Crucify him.”
Words are not just powerful; they’re revealing. Slips of the tongue, offhand remarks and idle comments say more than we intend about who we are.
We long for leaders who speak straightforwardly and responsibly, without subtly and circuitously passing the buck to someone else. We want clarity without fog, and plainness without spin.
We don’t want recklessness, ridicule, rumor and deception. We want debate not demagoguery. We don’t want verbal violence because words are never just words. They become deeds.
A couple of generations ago, in his book, “The Insecurity of Freedom,” the prophetic rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, “One of the major symptoms of the general crisis existent in our world today is our lack of sensitivity to words. We use words as tools. We forget that words are a repository of the spirit. The tragedy of our times is that the vessels of the spirit are broken.”
Our spirits reside in our words; and, at the same time, our words shape our spirits. What we say creates and destroys things, others and ourselves.
One way to heal ourselves, one another and our world is by disciplining, cleansing and ennobling the ways we talk.
We can understand the impact of our words by first understanding them ourselves before we speak them. What will our words do? Will they clarify, illuminate, encourage and reconcile?
In his book, “Where God Happens,” former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once asked, “What if you could recognize people of faith by how they spoke? By an absence of clichÃ© or of dehumanizing mockery or glib consolations?”
What if you could?
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.