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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sticks and stones aside, words can deeply hurt

Cheryl-anne Millsap The Spokesman-Review

Even a single word has power. With the right string of words we can express any emotion; the deepest, most tender, sentiment, the sharpest fear and even the blackest anger.

We all learn, or should learn, that the first words that pop into our minds, or out of our mouths, aren’t always the right ones. They are frequently, in fact, very wrong. An important part of growing up is outgrowing the habit of speaking without thinking.

I knew a woman who usually said exactly what she meant. No matter how much it might hurt. When she landed a verbal missile, she immediately followed by saying, “Oh, you know me, I’ll say anything.”

The woman, who I’ll call Bunny, knew perfectly well she was saying things that were unkind, she was too smart not to be aware of it, but she glossed over her heartlessness with a wave-of-the-hand. And she was enabled by friends and family who merely shook their heads after witnessing a direct hit and said, “That’s just Bunny.”

Bunny had authority and she had a certain position in her social stratum. I used to watch her, when I wasn’t dodging loaded comments lobbed in my direction, and wonder why she was allowed, why we all allowed her, to get away with it. Why is a verbal hit-and-run any different from, say, being struck down by an automobile? Everyone would have been outraged if Bunny had plowed into someone with her car and after leaving her victim lying broken and defenseless called out, “Oh, don’t mind me, I never know when to hit the brakes.”

But her cruelties earned only a shrug.

Words hurt. They wound us deeply. And, sadly, some wounds grow over before they can heal, leaving an infected sore covered by thin and tender skin. Leaving a bruised place where any touch is painful.

Our own harsh words can ricochet and leave their mark on us as well. I still cringe when I recall a joke I impulsively- seeking the approval of my peers – made at another’s expense in high school. I had no right to throw stones at that boy. After all, I lived in the same emotional glass house. But I did it. And I regret it. I still carry with me his surprised and hurt look. He was used to the teasing but he hadn’t expected it from me. And I worry that somewhere, under a tissue-thin layer of maturity, my words are lodged like shrapnel.

Looking back, critiquing my performance as a parent, I wince at the memory of the times I didn’t choose, or hold back, my words as carefully as I should have. When fatigue or impatience, or even preoccupation with issues that didn’t involve them at all, loosened my tongue and my children bore the brunt of my anger or frustration. My own sharp voice still echoes in my mind. Do they still hear it as well? I can’t bear the thought.

If I had it to do over again, if I could start fresh as a new mother, I would erase so many of those words.

I haven’t seen Bunny in years but I hear on occasion she still does her worst; that her coterie still shrugs and laughs off her mean-spirited remarks. And, it seems, her skin is thick enough to deflect those arrows when they return to pierce her.

How do you get so tough?

Maybe that’s what society demands. Popular culture is a poor teacher. So much of today’s humor is mean-spirited and, at times, abusive. Children cut their teeth on sitcoms that are little more than one insult after another directed at parents, siblings and friends.

We’d all like to be remembered for something. It counters the fear that once we are gone, we’re gone. But even the greatest legacy of good works and generous philanthropy is sullied if our words, shot from the hip instead of the heart, are hard and unfeeling.