Sticks and Stones

I don’t know anyone who didn’t flaunt the phrase as a child, a knee-jerk response to a bully, a feeble attempt to protect our self from the assault of a mean classmate or sibling.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

As an adult, with six decades of life experience behind me, and the wisdom gained in the process, I know differently.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart.

Many, many years ago, I was chatting with a friend about my mother in law. Greg’s mom was a gorgeous woman, model beautiful, and she knew it. Unfortunately, she had no other self-esteem beyond her physical beauty, and she was very insecure.

How interesting Greg chose someone like you, then, for a life partner, my friend said.

I could have interpreted her words to mean he chose an average looking woman instead of someone who was pretty like his mom. I didn’t say anything because I thought I knew that she meant something else. Greg had chosen a strong woman with plenty of self-esteem. Later that day she called apologizing for what surely sounded insensitive, and we both laughed. No harm done.

Many times, we don’t stop long enough to think about the words we pick. Like this one:

That makes my head explode.

It’s slang for something that’s either so difficult to grasp or so annoying that it makes us very angry or frustrated. I’m sure I’ve used the expression, but now when I hear it, I think, my husband’s head actually did explode, and the damage from that burst aneurysm took his life. I try not to think of it as anything more than slang, but when I hear the phrase, I can’t help but cringe.

How about this expression:

Just shoot me now.

Go ahead and google that and you’ll find a bevy of animated GIFs showing someone raising a fake gun, usually in the form of the two-finger hand gun, to their head, in some way meant to signify that the challenge they are facing is so onerous or the situation so boring or the person so annoying that they’d rather be dead.

Now imagine you actually know someone who ended their life—a friend, a neighbor, someone’s child, a brother—and imagine the visual that expression would invoke every time you heard it.

Just recently, chatting with someone at a social gathering for widowed women, one of the women asked me about the end of Greg’s life.

So you actually pulled the plug?

For a split second I pictured the hospital room where I had last seen him. I could hear his raspy breath as he struggled near the end of his life. And I imagined myself actually yanking the ventilator plug out of the wall and running out of the hospital. Her choice of words was so blunt, so insensitive, that all I could say was yes, I did.

In reality, that simple phrase—pull the plug—that we generally associate with end of life doesn’t describe at all what the experience is really like. It doesn’t touch the agonizing family discussions that are held to come to grips with the decision. It doesn’t portray the guilt and anguish we feel making the choice to stop fighting to keep our loved ones alive. And it most certainly doesn’t properly express how the act is done as a gift to the dying person, to release them from their pain, even though our own is just beginning. Anyone who has had to do this knows, there is no pulling of any plug, just gut-wrenching heart break.

We’re all guilty of using the slang of our culture—from the outdated race and personal descriptions that are now widely considered politically incorrect, to the more subtle idioms that can unintentionally hurt someone who is already suffering.

I have a towel hanging in my kitchen that says warning, mouth operates faster than brain. Yes, it’s funny. And yes, in my younger days I was known for mouthing off too quickly without gathering all the facts. But today, that towel hangs as a reminder to think before I speak. It’s a reminder we can all use.

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