I think it’s time to retire the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This saying supposedly first appeared in 1862 in The Christian Recorder, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For more than 150 years this expression has been a frequently imparted piece of advice that parents give to their children to build their courage and resilience. But in today’s world of cyber bullying, social media misinformation, school and workplace harassment, and political name calling, we see that words can have a very negative impact. Words can hurt. Words can destroy relationships and end careers. Words can even lead to senseless death and violence. Yes, words do have power. How are you using that power?
One’s Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure?
Recently while walking my dog one fine evening with my husband, I noticed an abundance of litter and trash strewn around the pathway. There were glass bottles, empty cigarette packets, plastic straws, paper, soda and beer cans, and various plastic parts that once belonged to some useful item. I find it inconceivable that someone would be so lazy, careless and inconsiderate that they would just toss these items on the street and litter the environment. Rarely do I see someone actually in the process of littering, but it must happen all the time. And I don’t think it’s just teenagers and those “other people” who are doing the littering. I think it’s a pervasive problem that cuts across all sectors of society.
I see the warning signs on the highways and on the streets. It’s hard to miss. If you litter, you will get fined. In fact, the penalties are quite high. For example, in my state of South Carolina, the penalties for illegal dumping or the discarding of litter or garbage in an area not intended for that use, has a fine of $1,000 and a minimum of 15 hours litter-gathering labor. Can you imagine having to take time off from work to pay this debt to society?
And still people are liberal with their physical trash. Either they/we think it doesn’t matter, or someone else will pick it up for us. Actually, that is part of our dog walk. We bring two plastic bags with us and collect garbage along the way. We make a game out of it. The person who collects the most items or the most interesting items “wins.” But what do we really win? How about a cleaner neighbor and community?
This got me thinking about the parallel between physical trash and verbal trash. How often do we carelessly dump our verbal litter in our workplace, homes and community? How often do we gossip knowing it’s the wrong thing to do, but we can’t resist the temptation to join in on juicy conversation about our colleagues, neighbors or family members? How about those zingers–criticism with a spiteful edge– that we spew in meetings or send off in impulsive emails? Or the easiest kind of verbal litters–social media posts and unflattering photos of others?
I am not sitting in judgement of you or anyone else. I am bringing this up because it is also a known weakness of mine. Perhaps it is a weakness of 99.9% of all human beings. Very few people are evolved and enlightened enough to steer clear of verbal littering.
But what if we got fined every time we tossed our trash talk? What if we had to pay money for our verbal litterbug behavior? Would we be able to stop? And who would stop us anyway? Perhaps we could brush it off with attitudes and beliefs like, “If they can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!” Or “Toughen up; don’t be such a sensitive wimp. They are just words; I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Post Traumatic Word Disorder
This week I had the fortunate experience to meet a man at a small gathering of a professional association that I belong to. He was well dressed, soft spoken, and a bit shy. As the half-day workshop wore on, this gentleman began to share a little more about himself, his passion (or his calling, as he referred to it), and his life story. He told us that when he was in middle school he had a learning disability and a speech impediment. He also came from an impoverished, minority family. He shared two vivid memories of teachers who told him very plainly that he would never amount to anything. He didn’t have what it takes to go to college. They strongly recommended that he buy a lawnmower and learn how to cut grass, because that was probably the best job he could get. The speech therapist also gave up on him, feeling he was a hopeless case, so why should she waste her time on him?
Reader, you might be feeling like I was when I heard this story; ANGRY at that insensitive, heartless, cruel teacher. But who knows, maybe that teacher had the best intentions and was offering the best of what they had to give at the time. It is a reminder to all of us of the power that our words have on others. Whether you are a teacher, a tutor, a parent, a boss, a friend, a spouse, a pastor, your words have power and you must be mindful in how you use them. The damage from your verbal litter can last for years and negatively impact many lives. I know that is not the legacy you want to leave.
p.s. This gentleman not only graduate from college, but he earned his Ph.D., served in the US military, joined the FBI, and now works in career development at a technical community college helping thousands of other students reach their full potential. He still has his lawnmower to remind him that some things need to be cut back, like bad advice and harmful words.
Be Impeccable with Your Word
What’s the solution? How can we stop verbal litter? We embrace the first agreement in author/leader Don Miguel Ruiz timeless book, The Four Agreements.
Here is his simple instruction:”Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love…”
How elegant. How noble. How very difficult! But what a worthy benchmark to set for ourselves. To be impeccable with our word. Every word. Everywhere. Every time. With everyone.
How to get started with this? Start in self-awareness. Notice the words you choose when you are sharing your thoughts and opinions with others. If there is even a hint of maliciousness, or the scent of lewd, hurtful or denigration, just stop (i.e., stop talking, stop texting, stop tweeting). Stop mid-sentence. Delete the post. Don’t send the email. Step away from the water cooler. You are not ready to communicate. Take a time out until you are calm and peaceful. Figure out a better way to rephrase your thoughts. Figure out how to communicate your ideas and feelings using only impeccable words. Use words that have the power to lift others up, to inspire, to transform, to help; not to crush, kill and destroy.
Words have power. Your words have power. In the words of Uncle Ben Parker in the movie Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Be responsible with your words. Don’t be a verbal litterbug!