Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sticks and Stones

"Tender Blossom -Painful Thorns"
- in my meditation garden -

In a recent interview, commenting on the continued prevalence of prejudice in America, President Obama spoke a heinous racial slur.  He uttered the “N” word, which set off a tumult of deeply-held visceral responses across the country.  Some people were shocked that an African-American President would dare to utter such a vicious, racially-charged word; others were glad he did because in using that word he emphasized that racism is not dead and words like that continue to be used even in our own day.

As for me, the use of that one single word showed me how powerful “words” are.   

In a CNN interview yesterday, an African-American reporter was literally reduced to tears at her childhood remembrances of how destructive that “N” word was, one single solitary racial slur, when others used it against her growing up as a child.

I remember a little children’s rhyme I was taught as a boy.  Parents used to tell their kids to recite this mantra whenever neighborhood children would “call them names:”

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.

This simple little rhyme was probably one of the greatest lies I was ever taught as a child. The “names” I was called did sometimes hurt me, sometimes they hurt a lot – names I was called that denigrated my ethnic heritage or “names” used against me because I was “wimpy”- not the greatest baseball player on our neighborhood team.

Words have power to destroy.

Words also have power to create!

I once read a very interesting article in Parabola magazine about the power of words as understood within the Hebrew tradition:

The positive potential of speech is dramatically revealed in Jewish thought
The very creation of the world and everything in it was accomplished
by the use of words alone:
And God said ‘let there be light’ and there was light.

Every day I sit in my garden and look at one of the many cacti that blossom at this time of year in the desert. I can perceive those cacti in radically different ways depending upon what words I call them. I can look at a cactus and pronounce that it is a tender flower and it becomes a source of great beauty or I can call it an ugly thorn tree and it becomes a dangerous source of potential pain.  The words I use do more than refer to what is in my garden, the words I use create what is there.

So it is with the words we use in our everyday lives. If we bully others by calling them “dumb” or “ugly” or “odd” that’s what they become. If we call others beautiful and brilliant, they flower into their names.

I am reminded of a proverb in the Hebrew Scriptures:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

As I reflect upon the power words have to create or to destroy, I become more and more aware of my own responsibility to use words wisely. The words I use have way more power to destroy than sticks or stones, they also have the power to bring “light” into a darkened world.

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