When my mum would drive me home from school, I’d regularly have to explain to the old dear why I’d gotten into a scrap.
It was usually due to some kid calling me “Big Ears“ or “Fartin’ Tool“ (the genius of the latter still cracks me up). Regardless of the situation or the severity of the outcome, my mum always had one of two stock responses:
- “Empty vessels make more noise, Martin!”
- “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”
Now Mary Patricia O’Toole was a school teacher and was thus rather more accustomed to the abrasive nature of angry, small people. She exercised rather more of a zero f*cks attitude to those who resorted to judgment or the spitting of vitriol as a way to project their bitter unhappiness onto others.
The thing is, I never really took to mum’s words in this regard. For me, there was always a deeply set sense of unfairness about having to turn the other cheek, and so when faced with the prospect (as I so often was), my belligerence would dig in like a squatting tick. Of course, fighting fire with fire rarely resulted in good things, so Martin V1.0 and all his subsets usually wound up extremely angry or extremely sad about some of the unpleasant things said to him. Bless his cotton socks.
Of course, as we grow older and hopefully (at least marginally) wiser, we learn to ignore people if they write or say nasty stuff to us. After all, what people see in us is simply a reflection of themselves.
However, on one level, I still find fault with my old ma’s advice. As a wordsmith, I believe in the tremendous power of words. As we all know, words can lift our spirits or smash us on the rocks. They can leave us hanging on the edge of a cliff or drowning in the deepest oceans of sorrow. Words can indeed hurt us, and this is why I ponder these things.
In this communication-addicted world and thanks to the dark miracle of the smartphone, we have unequivocal power. We have the ability to deliver unconditional love or, indeed, intense hatred, directly into someone’s pocket—into their kitchen, their lounge, or even their bedroom as they wake. With the realization of this power we all now have at our fingertips, I find myself wondering if now might be a good time for us to remember how powerful our words really can be.
“Words have the power to destroy or heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.” ~ Buddha
Historically, in early Middle English, the word “spell” meant to speak, preach, talk, or tell. The word was also used in magic, to cause harm, or force people to do something against their will via the medium of spelling (spell casting). In fact, if we think about it, without words, a significant number of things in our universe might not even exist.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” ~ Proverbs 18:21
I suppose an obvious question would simply be: why? Why do we feel the need to hurt another person with our words? If we know nothing good ever comes from it, that we likely don’t even mean it, or that it’s entirely unnecessary, then why?
Some might think me naive for asking, but I believe that just one word (kind or hurtful) can change a person’s day. Perhaps, after reading this, some will see why I raise the point for consideration.
As a professional communicator, I’ve made words my tradecraft. I’ve learned how to judge my audience and to pen just the right words using just the right tone to connect. I try to craft as best I can (and am still learning every day) whether they are a potential client, a reader of prose, a potential suitor, or an unsuspecting consumer whose attention I was employed to grab on behalf of a keen-as-mustard brand.
I’ve written with love, I’ve written with hatred. I’ve written with purpose, or in haste, followed by deep regret for clicking send with no pause or compunction. I’ve crafted some utterly heinous sentences, which even now make me wince at the thought of their creation and use.
But along the way, I found happiness. I left my anger behind and learned how to be more mindful of what I might say or write to others. More often than not, these days, I even manage to stop myself from ever thinking of negativities. Of course, nobody’s perfect. All I and we can do is try to be mindful of our thoughts, words, and actions.
In this newfound state of presence, I’ve been able to consider what I say while caring not for the hateful words of others. With this in mind, I wanted to share some stellar advice from a wordsmith far wiser than I:
“Before we speak, let our words pass through three gates:
At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’
At the second gate, ask, ‘Is it necessary?’
At the third gate, ask, ‘Is it kind?'”
What a legend. Honestly, I thoroughly recommend we all give it a go. Before commenting on my blog, perhaps? Just kidding.
But, I do think that Rumi’s advice is incredibly relevant in our newfound world of digital communication, especially when we’re all under house arrest.
Consider the “send“ button on our phones to be the gates that halt us before speaking. It’s incredible how many half-spoken or written words will get discarded. Because once those words are through those gates, there’s often no option to take them back. And they will likely do as intended: ruin someone’s day. Or worse.
Remember, everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Kindness costs nothing, and yet it’s invaluable. The power to offer it is in our hands.