There is a truism that we use to express in ordinary life, when I was growing up that, on closer examination, is not quite true. I remember that when someone said something mean or provocative you could easily show its impotence by shouting at the offending person: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me!” Once said, it was as though glowing armor descended around the verbally attacked one.
But is it true that words cannot wound or hurt a person? Scripture says otherwise: “Put a guard over thy lips!”
The letter of St. James also has some very pointed things to say of that small pesky member of our anatomy called ‘the tongue.’ He states that just like a tiny spark can cause a conflagration so can the tongue cause great harm.
St. Benedict in his “Rule” develops a whole spirituality out of silence and the importance of listening with the ‘ear of the heart’. Statues of him routinely have him holding a book (the Rule) and putting his finger on his lips advising silence and the control of words.
In adapting the words of Lady Macbeth who succinctly said after the murder of a number of nobles “What is done cannot be undone.” we can rightly say, “What is said cannot be unsaid.”
I think we have all had the experience of saying something in anger that hurt someone deeply. One cannot take it back! Shakespeare, though, warns that sometimes a word unsaid that needs to be said can also cause great harm. After listening to the fawning and untrue speeches of her two sisters testifying to their great love for their father, King Lear, Cordelia angers her father when she will not join the regal and false love fest. The tragedy is she truly loves him but is unwilling to express it because of her anger over her sister’s falseness. By her silence she sets off a great and tragic set of events that ends disastrously.
So clearly the power of speech is very awesome indeed. Our words need to be carefully and truthfully chosen, cognizant of the possible effects of them.
Of course, this primary campaign gives us a cornucopia of examples of what not to say and what needs to be said. If you are like me, you have cringed at some of the attacks that have been set loose by those who seek the highest office of the land. The saints would say: how can you control a nation (and its nuclear arsenals) if you cannot control your tongue?
This highlights the importance of the virtue of prudence when it comes to the faculty of speech. One wonders whether in the constant stream of sound bites and give and take in the campaign whether one is able to be careful. This is especially true when you have the media trying to exploit any perceived meaning that may be sensational enough to earn them a Pulitzer. In any campaign the deck is stacked against prudence since it is so important that the candidates keep talking. Hopefully one grows into being a statesman or stateswoman when one’s words can affect the lives of countless number of people.
Clearly words matter. And the care one uses with them is a sign of the potential that a candidate might have on the world stage if elected. But for us ‘ordinary mortals’, the importance of words can be seen in our daily life. A word of kindness may uplift a person in their daily life and give them needed hope to go on. An unwise and thoughtless word may create many problems for someone. Of course, the hearer also has a responsibility in not reading into words things that were not intended by the speaker.
This also can cause problems. If someone is against a certain person, that prejudice may shape what one hears and makes the hearer partially responsible for the impact of another’s words. In evaluating the message of another it is important for the hearer to be impartial about what they hear and not read into a person’s words attitudes and approaches that would confirm their original bias.
So you see that words are very important. Both the speaker and the hearer have a responsibility to approach communication cautiously. While sticks and stones can hurt someone, words also have a lasting impact. Let us prayerfully reflect on the need for vigilance in our communication with one another. Many a war has been caused by careless words addressed to careless hearers.