Taking the sting out of nasty words

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

My mother often encouraged me to recite that when I whined over some nasty name hurled by a schoolyard enemy. I’d yell it back at some tormentor with tears choking back every word. I now know my reaction convinced my foes that they had indeed caused me discomfort. As I think back, they must have enjoyed seeing my distress. I’ll bet they saw me as a whining little sissy (which I was). Had my Dad not been hospitalized, he might have taught me the manly art of self defence. That might have made things much better. Or worse.

As I thought about those days, I remembered Joe, a friend of 10 or 15 years ago. Joe was a neat guy, a retired journalist whose bio read like an adventure story. In the early days of my column writing career, Joe, along with a dozen others, read all my columns before I submitted them for publication. I would distribute them to the readers by electronic mail; they would answer if they saw an error or strongly reacted to my rantings. It gave me a chance to fix problems before making a fool of myself in print.

Joe always responded. He acted like one of those tough, crusty editors you read about in novels. He didn’t hesitate to attack my grammar, logic, or writing style (sometimes he would say nice things). Following a writer’s meeting, Joe said to my wife, “Anna, no matter what I say about Ray’s writing, he never gets mad. I try to get a reaction, but he never bites.”

Now I’ll tell you a secret. I didn’t understand Mother’s advice as a youngster. For years I continued howling and whining when someone called me names or said things disapproving of my actions or words. I continued piling misery on misery, storing hurt inside like a growing cancer.

I certainly hadn’t got the message when I reached my teens. We had a major problem in our family, a problem of many years’ duration and circumstance that no honest person could blame on anyone. But a relative, a sour sort with questionable judgment, had other ideas.

He chose to blame my mother and suggest that immaturity hindered my own understanding. The pain cut right through me. The hurt remained for years, grinding away at my soul like a piece of gravel in a shoe.

I hate to admit it took 20 or 30 years before I realized he hadn’t known the circumstances and couldn’t possibly have made a judgment call. He had said things to cover his own inaction and guilt. When I finally chose to forgive him, the tension and pain of two or three decades faded away.

Still, I learned slowly. Many more years and countless hurts came and went before Mother’s simple truth fully registered. Too often when people said unkind things about me, my kids, or my wife, I’d store it inside. But I eventually learned that words would hurt only if I chose to let them hurt. I realized that others could push my buttons, raise my ire, and bruise my psyche only when I gave them permission. By the time Joe came along, I had learned I could choose not to take offence or hurt; I alone could control my emotions, regardless whether the offender had good or bad intentions.    

Why did it take me so long to learn that? Maybe the answer lies in an old Pennsylvania Dutch proverb: “We get too soon old and too late smart.”



Ray Wiseman