When I was young, like many of you, I was taught by my parents and grandparents, “that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As I was developing this article, I became curious where this saying came from. According to Wikipedia:
It is reported to have appeared in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where it is presented as an "old adage" in this form: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
The phrase also appeared in 1872, where it is presented as advice [the book] Tappy's Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature, by Mrs. George Cupples. The version used in that work runs: "Sticks and stones may break my bones But names will never hurt me." It may be derived from a verse found in the Bible in Psalm 42:10.” This is actually Psalm 41:11 in the Septuagint and it reads “Those who afflict me revile me when they break my bones, when they speak to me each day saying, “Where is your God.” Psalm 42:10 in the Protestant Bible based on the Masoretic text reads: “As with a breaking of my bones, My enemies reproach me, While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” I did not do much research and Wikipedia is not always accurate. It does not really matter in terms of the point of this article.
One day my daughter shared with me she had been teased. Like Pavlov’s dog, I immediately launched into “sticks and stones.” She gave me a forced smile and I could see the disbelief and confusion on her face. I could almost hear her thoughts – “Dad’s telling me words can never hurt me so how come I feel so bad?” I remember one particular instance of my grandmother telling me the same thing when I was a little boy after my older cousin had teased me mercilessly for an entire day. It did not do any good either and I still felt wretched. I started thinking about this and it did not take long to come to a simply and obvious conclusion. This saying is false unless you are only talking about physical harm, but even that is untrue.
I remember when my daughter was being verbally bullied by two boys when she was in fourth grade. She started having stomach aches and could not sleep. She was being physically affected by their verbal taunts until we worked with the school to put a stop to it. This type of thing reared its head again only last month and shows the power of words to really hurt. My daughter, who is now a young teenager and is not a weepy sensitive type of kid, was at dance and, as it our custom on this day, my wife and I brought her something to eat in the time she had between two of her dance classes. I could tell she was upset when she got in the car to eat and she started crying and saying how she overheard these two girls she thought were her friends saying really mean things about her. I had never heard her mention these girls names before so I asked why she thought they were friends and she told me she is friends with them on social media and they write nice things to her. I said did you go up to them and ask them why they were saying these things and she look mortified and said no as if I had asked her do something crazy.
We talked a little more and then stepped out of the car and walked to the picnic benches that were on the grass near the parking lot and she began to eat. She was still weepy and her dance teacher, who happened to now be outside fiddling with one of the picnic tables saw she was clearly upset and asked her what was wrong. My daughter started to say nothing when I intervened and explained what happened and named names. My daughter wanted to crawl into a hole at this point. The dance teacher said she would deal with it and left and my daughter got really upset with me. I told her I just did her and those girls a favor and that she would see.
She finished eating and went back inside to her second class and my wife and I left to run an errand. I received a text a few minutes later where my daughter wrote “She [the dance teacher] talked to them and I have to talk to them on Wednesday and I really don’t want to L.” When we picked her up later she was upset with me. I told her as uncomfortable as she feels now, she had to realize those girls were feeling equally or more uncomfortable and will be even more so when they had to talk to her. I said know that, remain calm, and simply ask them why they said what they said. I was thinking to myself how words hurt and she now had a chance to engage in words that could heal the situation.
I also told her this is was perfect example of how to put into practice what Jesus meant when He said do good to those who hate you or love your enemies or even turn the other cheek; and, that we should put His words into practice as He tells at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I said that it was her job not to be hateful or vengeful but to be loving. She did not get it and frankly was not in the mood for a “Jesus lecture” but I remained undeterred and clarified that love is not an emotion but a way of being manifested in how we act towards each other. I explained the dance teacher is holding these girls accountable for their words and that she was as well. If these girls are not held accountable they will likely do it to someone. I told her it is not good for them either to behave like this. Mean spiritedness is bad their hearts and can result in hardened hearts over time the more it is done.
I said if she could stay away from feeling vengeful and a sense of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction knowing the other girls will be squirming, and just recognize this discomfort handled correctly can result in a good thing. The girls contacted my daughter the night before the meeting to apologize and they did not make excuses for their behavior. I was impressed and all is well between them and my daughter. What really made me happy is my daughter did not retaliate in anyway and she saw these “Jesus principles” I was trying to teach her actually work in real-life.
I am sure you understand my point by now. Words can hurt far more than physical injuries and actually create a deep and lasting hurt that never goes away completely, kind of like a stain on something white such clothing, a bedsheet or a table cloth. You can wash the white material, bleach it and the stain can all but be gone except for just a feint trace, yet this barely perceptible imprint of it remains. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, why she would care so much about the misuse of words? One very important reason is what I have already demonstrated. Words can hurt deeply. They can be used to be hateful and unloving towards others, the exact opposite of how Christ teaches us to be when He commands us to love one another.
That is a good enough reason to care but there is something deeper and actually ontological going on with words since creation itself came through words or better said the Word. Think about it this way. In Orthodoxy we refer to Christ Himself as the living Word of God. We believe the Bible is a verbal icon of Christ and is thus the word of God but when we refer to the Word of God in Orthodoxy we usually mean Christ. The Gospel of John famously opens with the verses “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Orthodox Study Bible notes that the Greek word for Word used here is of course Logos which in addition to meaning “word” also can mean wisdom, reason and action.
John’s opening chapter to his Gospel parallels the creation account in Genesis Chapter 1. In Genesis God, the Holy Trinity, is creating. The “Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water” (Genesis 1:2) and “Then God said let there be Light.” (Genesis 1:3). The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is present and active in creation. God the Father speaks to God the Son, speaks to His Word as the Orthodox Study Bible notes in its commentary on Genesis 1:3. But the Father is doing more than speaking to the Son as we would think of it anthropomorphically. The Father is creating through the Son and by the Spirit thus the complete engagement of the Holy Trinity. St. John writes in John 1:3 “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Wisdom of Solomon Chapter 9:1 reads “O God of our fathers and Lord of mercy, Who made all things by Your Word.” This is a direct reference to Chris, the Word of God. Proverbs 8:22-30 is another Old Testament passage that speaks to the Son, the Word, being the co-agent in creation. So, God the Father speaks existence into existence. He creates, through His Word. All of this was done out of love by the choice of God. We are created in His image and likeness. We are giving the ability to participate in the sacred act of creating life and we are giving the ability to create, to express and to act through our ability to reason, to use wisdom, to act through and by our words.
If you think perhaps I am getting a little too deep dish here extrapolating daily minor incidents in life with the deep theological meaning of the Word think of Christ’s words Himself in Matthew 12:36-37:
“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give and account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”
Commentary by several Holy Fathers on this passage if shows that they took this statement by our Lord literally. If you take life expectancy stats, shave off a few years for the years before we learn to talk, take some stat about how many words men and women use a day, it easily nets out to the fact we will use hundreds of millions of words in our life time. That is a lot of opportunity for idle and hurtful words.
Being conscious daily where we are always mindful of our words is obviously difficult if not impossible – thus the emphasis of our faith about our union with Christ and divine forgiveness and the need for humility and continual repentance. Without participating in the continued sacramental life we would have no chance based on our misuse of words. James emphasizes and explains this in his Epistle in Chapter 3. In verse 1 he states, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive stricter judgment.” He goes on in verse 2 and links the right use of words to perfection. “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body.” He, James, is touching upon another principle linked to our careful consideration of the words we use which also leads us to behaving correctly. In versus 6-10 he continues to write about the use of our words and essentially makes the point of this article.
“And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. [italics mine]
It ought not be so but our society really makes this a challenge. Social media now provides forums where people can cowardly attack others through harsh words that they would never use face to face. We also live in a tabloid society where we have magazines, TV shows, YouTube shows and other stuff dedicated to gossip, usually about celebrities and people in the public eye. It is an accepted part of society and many people love this stuff but it is just people using words, written or spoken, and often cruel at times, discussing stuff about other people that is none of their business. I have heard some people say that celebrities ask for it because they are “putting themselves out there.” Maybe so, but it does not make it right, nor should we accept it so casually that is how it is. Why should everyone who gets famous be subject to be ripped apart verbally?
Unfortunately, it seems to be part of our fallen condition. We see it happen to Christ in the Gospels. He was the subject of terrible things being said about Him. In the Gospel of John 8:41 the Jews said to Christ, “We were not born of fornication.” I have read some Biblical commentary suggesting that they were referring to Him and Theotokos and His birth and attacking Him for seemingly being born out of wedlock.
It is a disservice to children to teach them that “sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you.” We should teach them that “Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will break your spirit.” Words can cut deeper than physical wounds and scar the soul for a lifetime when used in a cruel and hurtful manner. Misuse of words can put us into direct opposition from Christ and what He and His saints teach us. Misuse of words is it really added essence of violation of the sacred, both because of the Lord's command but also because of His very being. Children need to know this from young and learn as best they can to encourage and love with their words, not hurt, and thus have a much better chance to receive the same as they give.”
Sometimes it’s easier to reach people or make a point through popular books or movies. There’s a great quote at the end of the move Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows Part II, said by the wizard Albus Dumbledore. It’s only in the movie, not the book. Here is what he said and I pointed this out to my daughter and used it as a springboard to teach her what I have shared. He said: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” And that’s the truth. At any given time we have to choose how to use this “quote” inexhaustible source of magic we have been given.