“Many have fallen by the edge of sword; but more have fallen by the tongue.”
In the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the power of words—both for good, and for bad. Growing up as a gay Mormon, I learned early on to choose my words carefully—to protect myself and hide who I really am, to not draw attention to myself, and having been hurt by the words of others, to ensure I didn’t do to others what had been done to me.
When I was a young boy, I had a dog that I loved with all my heart. She was my gentle, loving, unconditional companion. I remember one day distinctly, playing in the back yard with my GI Joe, and my pup grabbed Joe out of my hand and ran through the yard, me clumsily chasing after her and growing angrier by the second.
Eventually I caught up with her, pulled Joe from her grip, and in my anger unleashed a torrent of harsh, scolding words that fell like sharp knives. What pulls painfully at my heart about that day is the hurt look in my beloved companion’s gentle eyes at the sudden, violent change in me.
This life lesson taught me that words are a powerful gift, and we must choose them wisely. After all, if my little pup could be wounded by words, what do angry outbursts do to the people in our lives who understand every nasty word?
Obviously how we choose our words impacts our relationships. “Saying what we mean in the moment” versus “saying what we really mean” can, over time, erode the core of trust in a relationship and eventually destroy it altogether. Equally important, is how our words affect our own spiritual well being—for I believe we cannot willfully harm others repeatedly without suffering some internal damage of our own, which will eventually move us away from being our best and most genuine selves.
This isn’t easy: we’re all human and fallible, and I am, most certainly, among the least of these. When attacked, I want to return a hurl of verbal assaults—the allure of scoring a momentary hit is a strong one, indeed. Yet, more often than not, I am able to pause when I’ve been hurt. And in that pause, I’m able to think more clearly about what I truly want to say in response, rather than speaking words out of anger that I might regret later. Often, I feel prompted to keep the focus on myself, and am able to be honest about how the remark made me feel, rather than toss another insult back and have the anger spiral into a full blown argument—from which recovery might be long, painful or impossible.
It is not my responsibility to list the shortcomings of my partner or friend, even if I am angry. While I may disagree with some of your choices, it is my responsibility to speak up about that in a gentle way and let my feelings be known through kindness. It is never, though, my responsibility to judge you, to condemn you, to tell you what to do and demand that my solution is the only acceptable one to what I see as your shortcoming or challenge. My job, as your partner or friend, is to walk beside you as you learn the lessons life has to teach you—and to lend you a hand up when you stumble. The true spirit of love we have for one another is kind, patient, and doesn’t demand its own way. It doesn’t scold, condemn, or criticize.
The next time someone hurls a verbal insult at you, I encourage you to pause for a moment. Bring the focus back to you, and how it makes you feel. Give yourself a choice before you respond. You may choose to insult back, you may choose to speak your pain, or you may choose to walk away. But recognize you have a choice. You do not have to perpetuate a hurtful situation by causing wounds yourself. You have the opportunity to realize and understand that how we speak to others tells the world much more about us, than it does about the person to whom we’re speaking.
What do you want your words to tell the world about you?