I'm glad my children haven't learned the popular rhyme "sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt me." That never made sense to me, because words can damage. I would rather have my children learn the importance of choosing words wisely. We can all think of experiences where words have ruined relationships or hurt others. We can all think of times when the wrong words felt good, too. A mean jab at a person might cause a laugh with the crowd. Throwing out bitter words can make us feel like we have won during an argument.
I remember my second year of Spanish. My ability to learn Spanish was underwhelming, especially since I had done little to learn Spanish in my first year. My strategy was to make sure no one knew how poorly I was doing by making jokes whenever called on in the class. Which is why when the teacher called me to describe a girl in the class, I tried to deflect by making a joke. Instead of describing the girl as bonita (pretty), amable (kind), graciosa (fun), or inteligente (intelligent), I called her gorda, Spanish for fat. I did not think about the other person when I began to speak but immediately felt terrible when I saw her face after.
Instinctively we want to defend ourselves. When we are in a fight, we want to inflict damage to the other person. When we are in trouble, we want to divert attention away from ourselves. There is a belief that the end justifies the means, so words don't matter as long as we achieve the end goal. If we are to transform our communities, however, then we need to take seriously the small acts an words that impact our relationships.
When my children were taking martial arts, they learned how to put distance between them and someone else. Instead of getting caught up in a fight, they developed moves that allowed them to step back and process their surroundings. Sometimes it is crucial to put distance between us and others, take time to think, process with others, and wait until we can respond in a way that offers wholeness.
Our instincts might tell us the exact opposite, though. When we want to step back, our instincts might be yelling at us to react quickly. Quick reactions may have been good for our ancient ancestors as they ran from sabertooth tigers, yet when we respond quickly, we can cause great harm.
When someone wrongs us, our reaction to seek revenge sometimes overshadows our desire to work towards forgiveness. In an argument, our response to hurl negative words ignores our care for the other individual. Learning to step back, rather than react, helps us pause to find the words that bring healing instead of harm.