"Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.""I love words," I clumsily blurted out some way into my first date with the brilliant and beautiful woman who, even after this curious admission, would go on to become my wife. I no longer recall what prompted the comment, and to this day I have no insight into why I thought this information was important to share. "They are like paints," I recall continuing, "with which you can paint whole worlds."
And though all these years later I still feel sheepish about that courtship conversation, I stand by both parts of my comment. I do love words, and they are, indeed, beautifully and evocatively potent. Which is why even at an early age I somehow sensed the absurd falsehood of that familiar childhood chant. Words can hurt a lot -- even moreso than sticks and stones -- because they are not simply beautiful; they are powerful, and touch or bruise not simply the skin, but the heart.
People who read religious texts have encountered this notion before. In the very first words of Hebrew scripture God, the Prime Mover, creates a world...with words. Out of nothing, something. In the same way that a candle flame overwhelms a dark room, the divinely spoken word transformed the silence. I wonder if it felt, to God, like work or like fun? Like construction, or like art? All we know is that God stuck with it, talking and speaking us and all into being. Only blasphemous fools assert that God, alone, has that power -- that only the words passing through God's lips amount to anything of consequence.
We act as if that were true. Increasingly I have come to lament the tawdry state of vocabulary in our culture. We spew and strew words cheaply, as if they were so much water through a fire hose. We tweet them, we text them, we shout and mutter and disregard them. Marketers cleverly co-opt and trivialize them; politicians gratuitously bend and capitalize on them, all to the end that we scarcely know what words mean any longer -- if, as we cynically wonder, they mean anything at all.
But though we dismissively convince ourselves that we have beaten words into submission, making of them whatever we choose at any given time, Eugene Peterson -- that wise and careful intellectual poet of the soul -- has a warning:
"We cannot be too careful about the words we use.I hope and suspect I'll spend the rest of my life pondering what he means by that, and the myriad ways my words are using me. But at the very least, his insight prompts me to form them in my mind and mouth more cautiously, more reverently, more circumspectly.
We start out using them, and they end up using us."
They are powerful things, after all -- beautiful, yes, and as precious as gold.
But powerful, above all.
So let us be careful with them; for whether or not we could ever break them, they can surely break us.