Monday, May 12, 2008

Words, Sticks, and Stones

“”Words can hurt…but only if you let them. They called you bad names. Were you changed into the things they called you?”

“No,” I replied.

“You cannot forget what they said any more than you cannot feel the wind when it blows. But if you learn to let the wind blow through you, you will take away its power to blow you down. If you let the words pass through you, without letting them catch on your anger or pride, you will not feel them.””

--Joseph M. Marshall III, 2001, The Lakota Way

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

--A common schoolyard retort

The truth is though, that words can hurt very deeply – and more than one child has experienced just how painful angry and barbed comments can be. Not only do they hurt in the moment when they pierce our hearts and seemingly sear into our psyches, but their pain can live for hours or weeks in the lives of school kids. If we hear enough of them, or hear them from the right people, they can impact our lives forever by providing a form and shape to which we conform our own identities and our expectations of relationships.

How many people live their lives as though they have received their identities, their place in significant relationships from the expectations or valuations of others? We often refer to these ideas of self and others as baggage, or life stories, or scripts that provide ready-made views into which we place others’ and our own behaviors and words. Many times we think we know the intent of someone else’s behaviors, their thoughts behind their interactions with us. Shaped by the words and behaviors of other people, and seemingly reconfirmed by our experiences that seem to reinforce those judgments, our interpretations and meanings assigned to other’s behaviors cause us considerable anxiety and upset for the rest of our lives.

The quote above from Marshall’s book provides valuable insight into how best to view those words thrown at us. While children may lack the natural responsive ability to distinguish themselves from what others call them, we can be trained by those more wise than ourselves or through our own experiences and readings that we need not let others’ views of us shape and define our beings. Words do hurt – excruciatingly so at times, but we need not let them shape the way we see ourselves or even how we see those who sling them at us.

Notice that we are not to let the things people say and do to us get hooked on our anger and pride. This is perhaps the key element in the above quote. Only when we perceive a threat, perceive that someone is “out to get us,” do we let the circumstances raise our anger or hurt our pride. Anger is a natural, although often undisciplined response to hurt. Anger and pride are powerful aspects of human beings and the more we let them influence our reactions to others, the stronger they become as elements of our behaviors and attitudes. It is often in these moments that our self-stories and stories of others get formed and anchored in our beings. Can we learn to simply let the insults and conniving pass without getting stuck in our beings? Can we let other people make mistakes, call us names, and take advantage of us without having to own in ourselves their behavior? Can we refuse to let them and their immature prejudices define who we are and how we live?

In refusing to let the wind knock us down, we can maintain healthy beliefs about ourselves and even others. Do we want to live lives dictated by others, or would we rather live lives that match our values, our desires; lives that allow us to be valuable, competent, lovable, and loving people? We cannot control others’ responses to us any more than we can control the wind. We can however simply let the wind blow – even if it is at times blustery, bone-chilling, or gale-force. The wind will buffet us; it might even knock us over once in a while. We need not though, let it keep us down.

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