Words matter

Do you remember that childhood rhyme that went “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?

I think it probably was created with the best of intentions…to try to encourage people to be strong. But the sentiment is not true.

Words can…and do…hurt.

They resonate in our minds long after the echo of the sound waves has disappeared, and they reappear when we may least expect them to.

They can encourage individuals to release inhibitions and allow the ugly part of themselves to come out.

They have the potential of marginalizing entire groups of people.

They can place individuals in physical danger.

Jean-Paul Satre said “Words are loaded pistols”…and they can have the same horrific impact.

But words can also bring healing and hope.

They can expand our circle of relationships.

They can help us learn more about each other and this wonderful world we inhabit.

They can bring inclusion.

Words matter.

What do your words say?

Quotes About Words Matter


Words matter…

I remember the childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I wish that were true…

Unfortunately, far too many of us have had experiences with name-calling in one of its many forms…and studies bear out the long-term impact that bullying can have on everyone involved.

When one is a child, bullying can ensure that one is seen as somehow “less than”…pushed to an outer circle. Sometimes the bullying that takes place is clear and undeniable, but sometimes it’s far more subtle, with words that poke fun–and can be (and are) easily dismissed as kids “just having fun.” But it’s not fun to the one experiencing it.

Nor is it good for the one doing the bullying. They never learn how to interact appropriately with their peers, but learn that force (whether physical or verbal) is the way for them to get what they want.

Young people who are struggling to find their own identity struggle often with words used to identify them…and sometimes believe they have no choice but to disappear.

Even into adulthood words matter.

Words create the environment we grow into…and that’s why we’ve come to recognize that words that were common years ago are no longer acceptable–words such as the “n” word or “retard” (which I remember hearing as a common insult when I was young). We’re slowly coming to understand that words that were commonly used to describe individuals whose sexual or gender identity are different from our own have consequences.

But somehow it still seems acceptable to many to shame girls/women…to see us only as sexual objects…to ignore the fact that we are individuals with desires and talents like men…to suggest in many ways that we ought to be kept barefoot and pregnant…that men ought to make all decisions for us (including decisions about our own bodies)…

Those words have helped create a culture where a young man who viciously raped an unconscious woman gets away with a slap on the wrist because “she asked for it because she was so drunk” and because he is an athletic swimmer.

Those words have helped create a culture in which a once-honored comedian found it acceptable to drug women he wanted to have sex with…and then claim it was consensual.

Those words have helped create a culture where some well-known athletes have boasted about the number of women they have had sex with.

Those words have helped create a culture in which one of the candidates for the highest office in our land feels no shame in boasting about groping and kissing women against their will…and where others who hold office see nothing wrong with what he has said.

For too many years we have been quiet, believing (or at least hoping to believe) that “words will never hurt me.”

No more.

Words have consequences. Words have power. And it’s time that we acted in ways that show we believe it.

The power of words

“Words hurt!!!”

A young friend made this comment the other day–and it’s so true. Words have tremendous power and can shape our lives in both positive and negative ways.

This young friend has struggled for many years with self-image. The struggle hasn’t been helped by comments by parents calling her “stupid” and unable to learn. She does have some learning challenges, but she is not stupid–she just hasn’t always been presented with opportunities to learn in ways that match her intelligence. She is finally gaining strength to begin the difficult work of changing this self-image–learning to listen to other voices that affirm rather than tear down.

Another friend has dealt with issues caused by years of abuse. There have been several suicide attempts, any one of which should have killed him, according to his doctors. The last time, his father told him that next time he should make sure he found a way that worked. Words hurt! Fortunately he has found a way to allow his life to be turned around, and he now mentors others who struggle with similar issues.

I remember one of the first times I showed my mother some of my writing. Her response was “That’s nice…” with the strong implication that there was no way I would ever be able to make a living with it–or with the career I had thought about following. I allowed those words (and others) to change my course and spent years wondering if I really had any abilities in the things I loved.

There are studies that show that it takes 10 positive comments to overcome the effects of 1 negative one. I’ve never counted, but I think for many of us, that gap is difficult to bridge–and the negative comments tend to put down roots deeply in our minds and souls.

There is a time and place for constructive criticism, for calling us to accountability. But more often, it seems that the adjective (“constructive”) is left off, and we criticize each other without being aware of the power of our words.

Proverbs 18:21 in the Bible says “The tongue has the power of life and death…”

There’s also another proverb I’ve heard: “Lord, make my words sweet, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

Both are good thoughts to live by.

If these were your last words…

Several days ago, we watched The Spiderwick Chronicles with our grandson. At one point in the movie, the three children find themselves in a situation they are not sure they will get out of alive…and the one who has fought most against changes in the family and who has given his mother the most grief has an epiphany. His last words to his mother that morning had been “I hate you!” And he now realizes that he might not have an opportunity to leave her with an expression of the love he really feels.

That’s gotten me thinking… Whenever I leave family members–whether husband, child, grandchild, parent–am I leaving them with words I would want them to remember if I didn’t have a chance to change them?

There have been times when I have been really frustrated…stomped out the door, shutting it just hard enough–but not hard enough to break glass–and gotten in the car to run an errand or go somewhere. When I calm down, I find myself wondering if that’s really how I would want to leave the person I was angry at…

So, I’m trying to change. That doesn’t mean that I won’t still be irritated or angry at times…or that I won’t say things I might regret later.

But what it does mean is that I’m trying to watch my words so that if something happens, my last words won’t be something I would regret leaving with a loved one. I want them to remember me with joy, not with regret over harshness that masks the way we really feel toward each other.