"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
Except...that's not really true, is it?
Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Proverbs 18:21
Words are powerful. They can bring hurt or healing. They can encourage or destroy. They can change the course of a life through inspiration or demoralization.
At times, words are so powerful that they are physically experienced and not just merely heard.
I experienced a word recently. I was in my safe place, church, at a Cub Scout meeting. I was waiting to speak with a friend. An acquaintance of mine was sharing a story with her about her son's visit to the pediatrician. Apparently, there had been some early worries about his development. The latest visit confirmed that all is fine. She concluded her story with, "Don't tell me my kid is going to be a retard!"
I was stunned. The air was sucked from my lungs in a startled gasp as I recoiled from the word. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't hear what else was said because of the over-powering "wooshing" sound in my ears and the thumping of my own heart. I wanted to escape, to be anywhere but there, but my feet were planted to the spot. For several seconds that felt like hours, I stood stock still and breathless, trying to regain my senses. When my faculties returned, I pivoted sharply and walked away to find, hold, and inhale my boy.
I never said a word to the acquaintance.
I've spent some of each day since, trying to sort out my feelings and make some sense of the incident.
When I posted about it in my group for mothers of kids with Down syndrome, they were ready to lynch the woman.
When I shared the experience with my friends without a personal connection (other than Eon) to intellectual disability, they were quick to defend her.
Neither response felt right to me.
She's a funny gal, the kind that will build a story to the inevitable punch line. She enjoys the lime light and being the life of the party. In short, she's a lot like me. While I never would've used the term "retard" as a noun, even before Eon, I have, at various times, stuck my foot in my mouth and crossed a line for a laugh.
At the same time, I don't think writing off her actions as "uneducated" is the way to go, either. Uneducated implies that she really had no idea the word is offensive, and yet, something tells me that if a young adult with Down syndrome had been standing there, she would've spoken differently.
I've been told that she certainly didn't intend to cause pain. Apparently, I'm not supposed to be offended if the intent was benign. But the crux of it is that it really doesn't matter if I was offended, at all. This journey that we're on is not about me. This is Simeon's trail. I am a participant and a spectator, but I am not the star. What really matters is the answer to this question: How is my son going to feel when he encounters that word at around the age of twelve or so? Will her intent matter then?
I don't want to have to educate Christians in hopes that they will no longer use hateful words.
I simply want us to no longer be hateful.
But it starts with me.
As I was ruminating on my hurt, I remembered a potent example of an instance where I marginalized people for a laugh. The story is here. Funny, right? Except, I shared that story, complete with punch line, in a group that included a 17-year-old girl whose siblings are all half, who lives in a mobile home, and who has most probably been called that very thing.
Funny thing about words. Once they're spoken, you can't ever take them back, no matter how horrified you are that you chose to speak them in that precise moment.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. James 1:26
I am too often guilty of worthless religion.
He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive. Proverbs 17:27-28
Too often, I open my mouth and prove myself the fool.
...for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks. Luke 6:45b
I need a heart change.
Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. Proverbs 16:24
This. I want this...when people experience my words, I want to them to feel sweetness and find healing. I want them to bask in love and acceptance. I want my religion to mean something. I want to speak life.
Will you join me? Will you determine to stop using reckless words that pierce like a sword? Will you put aside your own need to be right, your need to be funny, your need to make it all about you and let this be your prayer, too, as I'm making it mine?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Psalms 19:14