Monday, July 17, 2017

Words That Break Your Bones

"A Broken Vessel"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

When I was a young boy, a school bully decided he didn’t like me and so every morning he would get on the school bus, stop at where I was sitting and loudly proceed to barrage me with insults and threats. Eventually the bullying got to me and so I decided to report this to my mother who told me I should just ignore him. I also remember her quoting a phrase that I would often hear from time to time when I was a child:

Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.

As much as I tried to ignore that bully, I found that my daily encounter with him was doing more than making me fearful or depressed, it was making me physically ill. When I developed a skin rash and stomach problems, my parents eventually intervened and the bullying stopped - my rash cleared up and my stomach aches went away. I learned that the little childhood phrase about sticks and stones was actually a lie. Names can hurt as much as sticks and stones, in fact names can break your bones.

The other day I came across a fascinating article in the New York Times that explored how the words we use can actually inflict physical harm. In the article, When is Speech Violence? Psychology Professor, Lisa Feldman Barrett suggested:

Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system.
Words can make you sick, alter your brain,
kill neurons and even shorten your life.

Professor Feldman-Barrett went on to explain how “bullying” words cause stress and when stress is prolonged and becomes chronic, it causes physical distress. She also went on to explain how this phenomenon might be particularly relevant in the “antagonistic” culture of our own contemporary times:

What’s bad for your nervous system
are long stretches of simmering stress,
that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain.
In today’s political climate,
groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another.
It is a climate of rampant bullying in school and on the social media.
This culture of constant, casual brutality
is toxic to the body and we all suffer for it.

I can very much empathize with this sentiment. In fact, there are times when I refuse to turn on the news or browse through Facebook or Twitter. The constant barrage of insults and name-calling that originate from all sides of the political and social spectrum are, at times, just too much to bear. They make me feel ill, my stomach hurts and I’m afraid I’ll get a skin rash from all the poison.  

I’m not at all saying that we cannot or should not disagree with those who hold different opinions or ideologies from our own. In fact, rigorously debating and challenging an opponent can lead to greater mental, physical and spiritual health. I am saying that we need to learn how to disagree with dignity rather than resorting to wrestling in the mud - mudslinging always makes us sick.

There is an ancient Hebrew proverb found in the Bible:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

In our own day we would all do well to be careful about our words. Use the power of the tongue to bring about life rather than death.

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