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The mouth should have three gatekeepers:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
And is it necessary?
I love words.
I love how they can be simple yet manifest into something so magical and empowering.
How the ways in which you arrange them can turn them into something that sends shivers down your spine and has you replaying them over in your mind again and again, in a trance of complete and utter spellbinding happiness.
But just like the sting of the thorn on a beautiful rose, words themselves can come with their own type of pain. And you need to choose your words wisely so as not to turn them into weapons.
I have always been fixated on words. A peep into my childhood would show a young girl often found in her bedroom poring over books and magazines, savouring the words. She would pause a film to replay phrases over and over in her mind.
That same girl would scrunch up her eyes and submit passages or sentences to memory, consumed with wonder at how they’d been arranged into something that felt so special. A notepad soon held scribbled-down quotes from films and books. Words from Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Fitzgerald indented the page, as they were copied down with an urgency to submit them to paper.
But before words gave me the comfort that I would grow up needing, I had to learn a painful lesson: not all words are kind, and not all words make you feel good. And sometimes, people use them to hurt you.
I vividly remember a moment from my childhood when words didn’t feel so magical. I was 12, and it was the summer holidays, a time in itself that felt full of happiness. With no school for six whole weeks, it felt like every single day was a chance for adventure.
And so, clutching my pocket money and wearing some shorts and a vest, I ventured to the shop along the road to buy a magazine. And I was excited because “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was huge at this time, and there was a free Buffy book in the magazine I wanted, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
Just as I reached the shop, I found my brother and cousins outside the shop with a few random children from school. And as I pushed open the door to the shop, I heard a boy I didn’t know—had never even met before—nudge my cousin and say, “Who’s the fat girl?”
I carried on in to the shop, but my brother followed me inside, and he then walked me back home where he told my mom what the boy had said. My mom was furious, but to me she was kind. She sat me down, and I remember her saying, “You know you’re not fat, don’t you?” I just shrugged. To be honest, I was more fixated on opening up my magazine and reading it. I didn’t care about the words of a boy I didn’t even know.
Over the years, though, that moment and those words came back to haunt me. It was a memory I could never forget. And, while my mom eventually forgot about it happening (but was as equally furious as she was on that day it happened when I spoke to her about it recently), it was something I could never forget.
While the face of the boy faded and minor details fell away, the words still remained.
Who’s the fat girl?
And the funny thing is that I was a normal-sized child. Sure, I was beginning to grow breasts and I was holding weight in places that would disappear as soon as puberty arrived in full force, but fat? It was never a word I would have used to describe myself growing up. And when I look back at photos from that period in my life, it annoys me further because I was, if anything, ordinary. How dare he have used such an ugly word to describe something that only he was seeing?
One of the main reasons that moment comes back to me and I feel a sense of sadness when it does is because that little girl didn’t deserve to hear those words. To that girl, who was minding her own business and doing harm to no one, they were untrue and they were unkind, and that boy probably doesn’t even remember the words falling out of his mouth.
But I do. Perhaps I always will.
So, it got me thinking about the three gatekeepers that the Arab proverb speaks of. Why, when it comes to the words that we speak, do we sometimes not think twice? Hell, some people should even think three times before unleashing the poison from their tongue.
I love words, and I know that I don’t want to use them to tear people apart. To me, words are magical. But what use are they if they’re not full of compassion? If they don’t heal people, or help them in some way?
Here are the five things we should be asking ourselves before speaking to others:
1. Am I being honest here?
It’s easy to get caught up in gossip and repeat something you heard as if it’s factual. We’re all guilty of doing it at some stage, but unless it’s something that you’ve heard with your own ears, don’t repeat idle whispers. Keep the information to yourself and don’t take part in spreading it further.
2. Is what I’m about to say necessary?
There’s a vast difference between being informed and being opinionated, and the latter is something we should all try to rein back. It’s easy to become heated, especially during testing times, but don’t allow your ego to speak on your behalf. And, while we all develop opinions, don’t allow for them to speak for you.
3. Is there a kinder way to say this?
Sometimes words evade us, and it’s difficult to find the right words, but try to take a moment to find them. Let’s face it: we’ve all had that instant moment of complete and utter regret when words have flown from our mouth and we’re wishing we could claw them back. Allow a small silence to fall between sentences, and use this time to banish impulsive and potentially hurtful remarks. Make your words kind.
4. Is it appropriate for this moment?
I’ve been a victim of speaking at completely the wrong time, and it’s humiliating. Your words may be truthful and they may be necessary, but that doesn’t mean that the time is right for them.
Determine whether the moment is really the right time for what you have to say; take a moment to consider how the person on the receiving end of your words will feel. Is there a better time perhaps for your words? If so, wait and eliminate the chance of regretting your timing.
5. Would silence be a better choice?
Something can be true and yet still be completely unnecessary. Sometimes silence really is the better option, and the most loving and considerate thing for the person you’re talking to is to sit and be there without using your words.
Learn to listen without judgment or opinion. It’s easy, especially with loved ones, to want to make them feel better when they’re hurting. But just remember what you say will stick around long after they feel better.
Learn to just be present; they’ll appreciate it in the long run.