“A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
– Emily Dickinson
I’ve seen this graphic a few times on Pinterest. As a mother, that boy’s expression just breaks my heart. I try to control what comes out of my mouth, but I can’t help but recall the idle words I’ve sometimes flung at my children in moments of anger and frustration.
A spirit is such a fragile thing, so easily crushed by something as light as words.
Except our words aren’t light at all. They might possibly be the heaviest, most powerful things God ever entrusted us with.
I know what it feels like to wear the expression on that boy’s face. Though time has buffered the edges off the memories, those eyes take me back to all the times I’ve looked like that, verbal cruelty clenched around my throat like a boa constrictor, tightening until my breath was gone, stolen by the hissing breath of another.
Through grace, I’ve also known what it’s like to live long seasons of life surrounded by love and encouragement. And I’ve come to realize that you never forget what either feels like — living with the agony of verbal abuse, or immersed inside the peace of graceful kindness.
But as they used to tell my husband when he was in the Navy, “One ‘Oh $*+#’ erases 100 ‘atta boys.”
Unfortunately, I’m still stinging from an incident that brought home the truth in that.
Because that’s all it took. One hateful, angry, betraying diatribe, one lengthy explosion of bitter ugliness and I’m yanked right out of my peaceful place, left with a lap full of verbal diarrhea to clean up — and the violation of having dozens of poisonous seed-words planted inside me against my will.
Every one of those awful words started living that day.
And every one of them are weeds, good-for-nothing weeds that I’ve yanked up by the roots, repeatedly. But if you know weeds, you know they only do one thing well: they keep coming back.
There’s a stubborn potato vine that curls around the azaleas and gardenias below my bedroom window. Every summer, we yank it out of the ground, but every spring, it returns, and we never seem to notice it until it’s well-established. The summer after Jonah was born, in that crazy-busy, sleep-deprived year, no one pulled up the vine. So it slowly snaked itself around a lovely, tall, narrow shrub, choking it down until it was so badly bent over, there was no way to salvage it.
Today I looked out the window and there was the vine, two strong green cords springing out from between the fading gardenia blooms. Each vine’s leaves were uncurled, drinking up the sunshine to fuel another season of destruction.
I’m so tired of fighting against that stupid vine.
I’m so tired of fighting those words echoing inside my mind, wrapping themselves around what is good, pulling me down to death, if I let it.
It’s doubtful that the person who verbally assaulted me will ever read these words, ever understand that “I-meant-what-I-said-but-I’m-sorry-it-hurt-your-feelings” is almost worse than never offering an apology at all. Because it’s the same as saying, “I really do think you’re a rotten excuse for a human being. What a pity that it bothers you to hear that.”
This person will probably never know how their words took up residence in my mind, how they pop up daily to steal joy, strangle peace. How their rough edges claw scabs off old wounds, bloody drops of doubt staining again things I thought had been redeemed long ago.
The Bible speaks in many places about the power of words. I love The Message’s simple paraphrase of Proverbs 18:21:
“Words kill, words give life;
they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.”
I’m sorry that this person chose poison. The aftermath hasn’t been pleasant or fun and if I could’ve avoided the whole thing, I would have. I know God will heal it, the scabs will reform, the unwatered word-seeds will eventually wither and peace will come again. I know that God could yank up by the roots all the weeds that were planted, and sometimes that is how He deals with us.
Quick, merciful elimination of pain. It’s so very nice when He does that.
But sometimes, other times, there’s a lesson hidden in the process, uncovered only by living through the messy sorting-out of the garbage we are handed. For me, this is one of those times.
Though I wouldn’t have volunteered for this abuse, I think I needed to be reminded that we’ve all been given the power to make our words as bitter as poison or as sweet as fruit.
We get to choose.
I have to pause and ponder that: WE get to choose. Every time we open our mouths or type a word, we choose.
That’s why it’s called self-control. The devil doesn’t make us say cruel things. We decide to say them — we alone control our tongues.
And we alone are responsible for what our words create in this world.
As a writer, I know I’ve been given a bit more to manage in that regard, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more acutely aware of the power I have to build up or tear down with my words. It’s been a humbling and trying season. But I have really begun to notice the things I say to those closest to me, especially to my children. My belly is sometimes uncomfortably stuffed with eaten words, because I never want my kids to feel like the child in the photo above. Not at anyone’s hand — but especially never at the hand of their own mother.
There’s wisdom in this saying, “Forget what hurt you in the past. But never forget what it taught you.”
Forgive. Forgive again. Seventy times seven, forgive and let it go.
If it comes back home to roost again, forgive and let it go.
But always let the process make you stronger.