Sticks, Stones & Words

When I was a little boy, my grandmother often told me words of wisdom that I still remember today and apply to my life. One of the things she used to say often to me is,

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me!

As a child, I used to hear this not only from my grandmother, but from other elders, old folk, teachers, older family members. It was something that we heard, especially when you came home and told your family about what mean things others have said to or about you. 

Now, I am almost 40 years old and I rarely hear this being said to kids now. What I hear a lot about now is people encouraging kids to focus on how they feel. When a child tells a parent or teacher or trusted adult about something negative that was told to them, you often here people say something like,

Oh, that’s teribble! You must feel awful about that!

The immediate focus these days is on how what was said has influenced you. The child or victim is then encouraged to explain in detail how they feel, and retell the experience. Some parents may even proceed to confront the other party who said the mean things or maybe get them in trouble because of what they said. As I reflect on these things that I have observed in my adulthood, and meditate on the lessons of my childhood, I have come to an understanding of the impact of the difference in reactions from my now deceased grandmother and the adults of today. I would like to share these insights with anyone willing to listen or take note. 

Accept or Reject

Of the two statements made above, which do you think gives you a choice? Or another way to look at it is to ask which makes you think? One of the biggest misconceptions that people have today is the idea that you have to accept whatever you are told. I do not believe in the idea that we need to automatically accept what we are told by anyone. We should always scrutinize what we hear. If someone insults you, you do not have to accept what they say about you. Why should what someone says hurt you? Why are you hurt (emotionally) by a few words? Even if what was said has some truth to it, you do not need to accept it.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.” The most important word in that statement is “may”. Some people say “can”, and technically they are right. Either use of “may” or “can” will work. The power of this statement is that it reminds us of our own power. Where is our power? Where is your power? Who controls you? If someone hits you with a stick, they can break your bone and damage your skin and muscles, and can be very painful. Regardless of what you think or feel, the stick will hurt you. The same goes for if someone hits you with a stone. Either a stick or a stone will physically hurt you if they make contact unless you block it with another object. Words on the other hand are very different. Words can’t hurt you unless you allow them to. Someone can cuss you out and say a lot of mean and degrading things, but those things can never hurt you unless you accept them in your consciousness.

Unfortunately, many people will tell you, “words hurt!” the problem with that statement is that it presupposes that we are all obligated to accept words that are spoken to us or about us. This is simply not true. We don’t have to accept things spoken to us. 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof. – Proverbs 18:21

The scriptures give us some insight into the concept that we have a choice of accepting or rejecting what is spoken. Proverbs 18:21 informs us that the power of death and life is in the spoken word. Some may that think that this is evidence to prove that words hurt, but it is telling us that both death and life are in the power that the tongue (the instrument of speech) wields. Both possibilities are there. Indeed, the spoken word can destroy or it can build up. Most people focus on the first part of this verse and then formulate their understanding based on that. However, the key is in the latter part of the verse. It says, “… and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” This is talking about the recipient. The person who receives a fruit can choose the eat it. The fruit of the tongue is the death product or life product that it presents to your mind. This can take the form of an idea, concept, instruction, command, pronouncement or anything that is intended by the spoken words. 

I like how the proverb uses the analogy of eating fruit. We all have a choice of what we eat. As the father of three kids, I know from experience that it is not possible to force a child to eat what he/she does not want to eat. They may refuse to eat and if you try to force them, they may spit or vomit it out. You really can’t force anyone to eat something they don’t want. This is the point of the second part of the verse. We use our tongues to create words. Those words express thoughts or ideas. Those ideas can either contain death or life, just like eating a poisonous fruit can kill us or a nutritional fruit can strengthen us. So, the fruit that the verse is talking about is the idea or thought that is expressed in speech. And we all have a choice to either accept or reject that idea, just in the same way we have a choice of whether to eat a fruit or not.

Truth or feelings

Why should anyone feel bad when people say bad things about them? A bad feeling almost always shows up when someone says bad things about you or to you. We all have experienced this. This is because we are all social beings. We live and operate in social groups, whether it is in a family, a school classroom, an office, a playground, a gym, a church, etc. We all tend to feel bad, and it starts with a gut feeling that is often associated with being rejected. The thing is that as we grow older, we tend to learn that we can control feelings. We all experience negative things, which force us to adapt. Unfortunately, too many of us compartmentalize this lesson. We limit its scope to only a certain aspect of life. It could be a different aspect for different people. For example, some people easily block negative emotions in business relationships, and can’t seem to apply that to personal relationships.

The truth is that although feelings can move us, we can also direct our feelings. We are not our feelings. Our feelings do not control us, although we often allow them to control our decisions and thus our lives. We should use our feelings, and not allow our feelings to use us. So, the next time someone says something bad to or about you, the first thing you need to do is to pause. Take a breath, and ask yourself whether you should accept what you are being told. 

Words may hurt you, but only if you allow them to. It is within your power to accept or reject what is being said. You are not a victim of anyone’s thoughts or expressions. Thinking is to ideas what eating is to fruit. What you think about and focus on will impact you, and affect your self image and your behavior. The scripture teaches us the following, 

…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. – Philippians 4:8

We should always scrutinize what we hear. What we think about should pass the 6 criteria and the 2 filters listed above in Philippians 4:8. There is more I can say on that, but that’s for another post.

Final words

The next time someone comes to you about something bad that was said to them, don’t encourage them to focus on what was said or on how it made them feel. Reassure them that they have a choice on whether to focus on it or to forget it. And if it is you who has been insulted in some way, you have to say within yourself, “no, I will not feel bad or insulted.” Words are not sticks, and neither are they stones. Unlike sticks and stones, they can’t hurt you unless you give them permission to. Also, you don’t have to listen to anyone about anything, and you certainly don’t have to agree. Take back control of your life. Take power over your own feelings. Your feelings belong to you. You do not belong to your feelings. Choose to eat the fruit that gives life. Reject any fruit that gives death.