Friday, 13 April 2012

Sticks and stones only break our bones, but words can utterly destroy us

“Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt me.” We’ve all heard that one haven’t we?

Is it true? Well no not really. Yes ok words do not leave physical marks and scars, but the wounds that can be caused through ill thought out, or just plain viscous speech can be deeply damaging and can still cause pain many years later. We do need to be careful what we say, because what we say has an impact. While it is true that “actions speak louder than words” words can still be powerful actions in and of themselves.

When I was a student minister a support group was set up to help me through my early days of training. They were there to offer constructive criticism of me in a loving and supportive way. I found it invaluable at a time when I was a little bit of a lost sheep, stepping into a world that I knew little about. Those early days as a student minister were tough, as they should be and I am so very grateful for the loving support I received. I was nurtured.

That said I struggled greatly with one member of the congregation, who was not actually in the support group. Whenever I did anything she would come up to me and tell me very directly what she liked and did not like and the things about me that really irritated her, mainly my manner and body language. Now this would probably not have hurt so much except for most of my life I have had problems with regard to my body image etc. As a child I was constantly criticised for not standing up straight etc and I am very aware of the fact that I was born with “a bad back”. I remember my mother taking me for physiotherapy, on a weekly basis and not being allowed to sports for quite some time; I remember the hurtful words of school days, when I was called penguin and or cripple. People may also find this hard to believe but I also grew up with the idea that I was a small person. I suppose I was in comparison to my older brother and stepfather. I do remember being called stumpick (the runt of the family) and this stayed with me for many years. Those words hurt me greatly as a child, although not today. I have been set free from that nonsense.

I learnt a lot from those early days of ministry training and I dealt with the criticism well I believe. I worked my way through it and was able to see what were my own insecurities, what was constructive criticism and what was simply worth disregarding completely. It also taught me the importance of right action and speech.

“Right speech” is one element of the eight fold path of Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

 “There is a saying in Vietnamese, ``It doesn't cost anything to have loving speech.'' We only need to choose our words carefully, and we can make other people happy. To use words mindfully, with loving kindness, is to practice generosity...Many people think they will be able to practice generosity only after they have accumulated a small fortune. I know young people who dream of getting rich so they can bring happiness to others: ``I want to become a doctor or the president of a big company so I can make a lot of money and help many people.'' They do not realize that it is often more difficult to practice generosity after you are wealthy. If you are motivated by loving kindness and compassion, there are many ways to bring happiness to others right now, starting with kind speech. The way you speak to others can offer them joy, happiness, self-confidence, hope, trust, and enlightenment. Mindful speaking is a deep practice.”

I hear echoes in the Epistle Paul’s letter to the Collossians (3vv 8-10) he wrote:

 “ must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive  language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

The concept of “right speech” also brings to mind Socrates “Triple filter test”:

It is said that one day an acquaintance met the great philosopher and wanted to share some juicy gossip with him. He said “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about your friend?” “Hold on a minute,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me anything you must first pass the ‘Triple Filter Test.’” “Triple Filter?” “Yes that’s right,” Socrates continued, “before you talk to me about my friend, it might be a good idea to take a moment and filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?” The man replied, “no actually I just heard about it and”...Socrates interrupted him before he could continue...”All right so you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, ‘Goodness’. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something good?” The man replied “No, on the contrary...” again Socrates interrupted...”you want to tell me something bad about him, but you are not certain it’s true. You may still pass the test though, because there is one filter left, ‘Usefulness’. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?” to which the man replied “No not really.” On hearing this Socrates concluded, “well if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell me at all?”

Wise words indeed and they show why Socrates was held in such high regard. It also shows why he never found out that his best friend was sleeping with his wife.

How we communicate with one another is so very important. What we say, what we don’t say and how we say it can have such a powerful impact on others. I try to practise consideration when communicating with people, it is vital in ministry. Of course I often fall short of the mark, but thankfully most people are fairly forgiving.

In “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”, Karen Armstrong describes how important right speech is. During “The Sixth Step: Action” she asks us to remember times in our lives when people have done or said things that have helped and or encouraged us. She also asks us to “...consider the effects of the unkind remarks that have been a corrosive presence in your mind over the years.” She says it is vital that we become aware of how powerful words and deeds can be and the effect that they can have on the lives of others.

By practising living by the “Golden Rule” she believes that we can transcend are seemingly selfish and self centred natures. For her this is the true purpose of religion, the reaching of this ecstasis, or enlightenment. What is required is discipline and practise. She writes:

“Sceptics argue that the Golden Rule just ‘doesn’t work’, but they do not seem to have tried to implement it in a wholehearted and consistent way. It is not a notional doctrine that you either agree with or make yourself believe. It is a method – and the only adequate test of any method is to put it into practice.”

This of course is not an overnight job and it does require persistence and discipline. That said it is something that anyone and everyone can achieve. She suggest that we begin by resolving to act once a day in accordance with the positive version of the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” A grand gesture is not required here it could begin by simply making a little time each day in commitment to someone in need. Secondly she suggests that each day we also commit to fulfil the negative version of the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” This requires awareness and mindfulness. She suggests:

 “Try to catch yourself before you make that brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm – and refrain. Each time you succeed will be an ekstasis, a transcendence of ego.”

Thirdly she suggest that once a day we attempt to catch ourselves when our thoughts turn to negativity, to anger, to hatred and to attempt to change our thoughts to more positive things, such as focussing on the many gifts that are present in our lives. Finally she suggests that at the end of each day we reflect on what we have been attempting to practise but not in an overly critical spirit and then resolve to continue practising the next day. After we have practised this for a while she suggests that we begin to double and then triple and quadruple our efforts etc...etc...etc...She concludes the chapter with a couple of simple promises:

 “It will not be easy. The goal is to behave in this way ‘all day and every day’. By that time of course, you will have become a sage.”

Wow! Could that really be possible?

Everything that we say and do and everything that we do not say and do not do matters. We are not all powerful, but we do impact on our world with every thought, word and deed. We cannot create the commonwealth of love over night, but we can do something. It begins with us and begins by simply attempting a few simple spiritual disciplines day by day. If we do this, in a disciplined manner, the seemingly impossible can happen. That said we must always maintain humour and compassion for ourselves as we do so. Change is never easy.

Word’s can hurt us, but they can also begin to heal the wounds within ourselves, within each other and throughout our world.


  1. A little tool I find helpful in keeping negative thoughts at bay, be they about myself or others, is to wear a rubber band on my wrist. When I catch myself thinking negatively, I ping it against my skin and turn the negative into a positive.

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