“Poetry: the best words in the best order.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I envy poets. They choose their words with care, sifting through adjectives and verbs until they find just the right one. A poem may be reworked and reworded; tweaked and tightened until it has just the right impact and effect. In real life we are spontaneous and thoughtless, carelessly hurling words without filter, inconsiderately harming the ones they hit.
How often have you recalled a painful episode of your youth, remembering each word an adult used to admonish and demean you? We carry some issues along with us like overloaded bags, allowing them to undermine our self-confidence and self-esteem when we should have dumped them by the wayside a long time ago. Some encounters we remember with a chuckle; like the teacher who put one of our classmates firmly in her place by telling her “Look how you’re little and in-con-se-quen-tial,” singing out each of the five syllables of that last word. We took the sting out of the words by calling that classmate ‘Consy’ as a nickname for a while!
As children we placed so much worth on the words and opinions of those older and wiser in positions of authority. We thought the world of our parents, teachers and other community figures, not realizing that they were human and subject to life’s stresses and frustrations. When we became parents ourselves we suddenly realize what a tough job it was, and found it so much easier to forgive them!
Our ability to communicate using words and symbols is what separates us from the rest of the animals. We have developed language in spoken and written form, invented language which permits computers to perform fantastical computations. Each day new inventions demonstrate the amazing capacity of the human brain to adapt and innovate. Yet we can so easily speak words that hurt or damage the relationships that are so crucial to our health and wellbeing. When emotions are triggered, words come hurtling out of our mouths and sometimes find their target with amazing accuracy, like heat seeking missiles, finding the soft spot in the other person’s armor.
I remember many years ago driving up to a vehicle stopped in the middle of my street. I recognized my daughter bent over a child on the ground, and my heart stopped. But it was not what I feared; the child had not been hit by the car. He had been riding on his bicycle with a fishing rod in his hand, and had been scared by the barking of a dog. As he swerved the fish hook had swung and pierced his eyebrow. He was lying in the road, scared to move a muscle. If you are not familiar with a fish hook, it is barbed, which means that it does more damage if you try to pull it back out. In the ER the barb is cut off before removal. Our words can be like that, they pierce easily, but they are not so easily removed. We are often perplexed by the reaction of the other person, not recognizing how damaging our words can be.
We love to look at others and judge them, judging their way of life, their choice of job or spouse or clothes, and are ready with our critique of their performance. Somehow we feel that we are experts, and can speak to all of these things with conviction. Putting yourself on display makes you vulnerable and requires a certain degree of toughness and confidence to cope with the criticism of others. Recently I was involved in an activity with classmates where we had to critique each other’s work on a discussion board online. Initially we found it very difficult, not wanting to hurt each other’s feelings. We closed our comments with words like: “Respectfully submitted” to try to ensure that no offence was taken. But the exercise helped us to refine and develop our work, and once we got into the swing of it we were able to contribute meaningfully to the task.
But what was required of us was an acceptance, being open to the suggestions and constructive criticism that was offered. Recognizing that the proposals were coming from a caring place and not a critical place was crucial to removing any barbs that the words may have had. They often say that communication requires three things: the sender, the receiver and the message. Does the recipient of the message have a responsibility in the way they perceive and receive the message? Are there times when we ascribe power and venom to the words of others, venom that was not placed there by the sender? Could it be that we have the power to permit others to hurt us? Do we have to be accountable for our reactions?
If we think of our words as possible weapons, perhaps we will choose them with more care. And if we recognize our own vulnerabilities and insecurities, maybe we will take a breath before we give a knee jerk response to the careless words of others. It all comes back to love, loving ourselves and being ready to forgive ourselves, and then extending that love to others. There is also power in silence, in supportive silence which permits the other the space to grow.
This weekend I hope you think about your words, and use them wisely. Be like the poet who makes each word count. Practice speaking softly to yourself and others, leaving room for love and forgiveness to grow. It may not be easy to do, the next time you perceive yourself as being attacked or criticized, but take a breath, engage the filter, and laugh! Let laughter be your shield against barbed words, not only does it deflect it also disarms, and makes a place for peace to emerge.
Have a wonderful weekend Family! To my schoolmates in Atlanta, have a wonderful celebratory weekend – my spirit will be dancing with you on the dance floor, so sorry I cannot be there with you.