“sticks and stones”

Remember the childhood ditty that well-intentioned grownups encouraged us to say in response to our playmates’ verbal taunting or teasing?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me…”

I was thinking about the implications of that ditty in response to recent news about the death of one of the “neighborhood kids” (now a retired adult) with whom I had grown up.

In addition to the usual reactions of sadness and disbelief that I felt at learning about a contemporary’s death, I had some unkind, uneasy feelings.

Cruel words most certainly can hurt. …His ethnic slurs toward me, made in public when we were ten…His mocking of my shyness, made in public when we were adolescents…  definitely did hurt–

Just harmless child’s play? Just “normal” adolescent teasing?

Objectively/intellectually: maybe; probably. Subjectively/emotionally: not on your life!

Only God knows for sure why he said what he did the way he did.

I only know I felt diminished and embarrassed by what he said in those days, as well as when I think about them, even to today.

At the same time, I do know that God really does bring good out of hurts. I do know that on multiple occasions, this classmate’s biting words gave me pause—at the time, as well as during the decades that have ensued– to consider the germs of truth contained in his unwelcomed words.

For his part, I bet those words had no importance to him. Unlike me, I suspect he never gave them—or me!– another thought.

And I’m wondering now that he is in God’s presence, and has reflected on his life, I wonder if the impact his words (like no other words ever spoken to me) were significant enough in God’s Eyes so that those words were brought to my former classmate’s sensitized attention.

I wonder if he’s sorry now. I wonder if God let him understand why I met his words with silence. Why I preferred to be embarrassed than to stand up for myself? (Maybe by God’s Grace, he knows the answers to those questions, more than I know them myself.)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me…”

Fortunately, in response to increased knowledge and understanding about the detrimental (and sometimes devastating) effects of harassment, intimidation, and bullying, today’s adults would be hard pressed to deliver that faulty/flawed “sticks and stones” advice.

As much as I am pleased that today’s youngsters are more protected from verbal harassment, intimidation, and bullying than we were, and as much as I would not advocate or justify bullying or teasing, under any circumstances, at the same time, in retrospect, with God’s help, I believe that I have grown to become a better, more self-aware person, because of those words, cruel as they were, spoken in childhood and adolescence. For that I am grateful.

As ambivalent as I admit I still feel about the former neighborhood classmate, on word of his death, I did what the Lord’s Word says. I prayed for his eternal rest…and mine, too, through mercy and forgiveness.

Mercy, not only for him, but for me, too, for all the cruel verbal sticks and stones, wittingly or unwittingly, I’ve thrown throughout my life, and peace, not only for me, but for those I’ve purposely or inadvertently hurt through the words of my mouth, words thrust at people with the aid of my tongue which, we have come to recognize, as Scripture says, has the power of life and death.

In all we say and do, may we always choose life. Not only sticks and stones, but words, too definitely can hurt us..the “us” who deliver them and the “us” who receive them.

Amen.

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