“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”
I have no idea who came up with that little rhyme, but you try telling that to a thirteen year-old schoolboy who is relentlessly, verbally bullied by his peers because of some minor difference in his life compared to theirs.
It won’t wash, very quickly, his eyes will glaze over or you’ll get a terse “whatever”.
Perhaps more accurate is the adage coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839:
“The pen is mightier than the sword”
Words have power. Written words have huge power as we can see from the intense and profound effect that the modern era and the printing press have had on our current ‘postmodern’ age. We still heavily draw on textbooks and written material in our education system, we place immense value on reading and writing in our society and those that fall short are often marginalised in the adult world of jobs and employment.
Perhaps not as widely recognised though, is the incredible power of the spoken word. Stories that we share are full of power and meaning, but more than that, the words we speak out loud have the capacity to shape not just our relationships and interactions, but our lives and the lives of others too.
Think of the power words have to break things in ourselves.
To speak out loud the words “hi, I’m Alex and I’m an alcoholic” names the person, the problem and gives ownership of it. All the rehab step-programmes use this style of introduction because something once secret or denied, when spoken out loud no longer imposes the same grip over us.
If we speak truth out loud, we expose the habit, problem or inner thought and make it public, maybe we are then slightly vulnerable and more importantly, we become accountable to those around us, which gives the words the power to re-programme our brains to overcome the difficulty.
Sometimes, we speak out to break a bad thing or air an issue we are having. Words are powerful.
Words are also powerful to build. When we vocalise the words “I can do this” or “I will overcome my addiction” or a relatively well known rallying cry of tour-de-France cyclist Jens Voigt “shut up legs”, we emphasise our ability to prevail. Speaking our thoughts out loud increases the power of the words and backs up the positive “I can do it”.
The same can be said for other people. If our own words can affect us so deeply, think how they can affect others.
The words we speak to our children have huge impact. Encouragement or chastisement, both are appropriate at different times but spoken out loud or even written down, they have incredible power.
And so also the words we use to each other are not just poignant or appropriate, but powerful and meaningful. A few words of encouragement to a friend can have incredible weight, but also, one word can slay people and destroy self-esteem or confidence.
So be careful what you say and maybe make the effort to think first to make the words that come out of your mouth ones that lift people up and spur them on rather than discourage and cut them down.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire…
…With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
James 3:3-6 & 9-10