Killing with Words


christmas lights close up lights words
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Why do so many of us tolerate or even applaud people who demean and belittle others? What is it in us that finds it amusing or even a little delicious when a clever put-down hits home in someone else’s life? Comedians, politicians, schoolyard bullies, clever show-offs, attention-seekers of all kinds, jealous siblings, frustrated parents do it, and we encourage them with silence or with applause, enabling the behavior.

I’ve always loved words and I think a lot about them. Our human ability to create language and intricate levels of communication from the stringing together of sounds into words strikes me as an astonishing gift. Every time my dog stares with great soulful eyes at me, hoping I will understand what he wants of me at that moment, I think how wonderful a thing it is that human beings can speak words to let others know what we think, what we want, what we hope for, what we want them to know about us. But oh, how often we misuse the gift of our language not to understand or connect, but to obfuscate, to hide behind, to strike out as with a weapon. Then the gift is distorted, diverted to an evil use.

The words of others help to shape the ways we think about ourselves. They create bridges or barriers to relationships. They frame the way we think about the world around us. They inspire, or deflate our hopes. Words can give life to the soul, but they also can kill.  They can kill hope; kill self-esteem; kill energy and risk-taking that spawn success in life; kill marriages, families, and friendships. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt us.”  It was the biggest lie they our mothers ever taught us. Words can and often do harm us when used to label and diminish us.

How much damage we can do with our words! The harm may be inflicted with intent. But it can also come through simple carelessness: our carelessness in speaking or theirs in hearing. It matters how the other person listens and hears, and if we care about or respect them we will be careful with our words, whether written or spoken. Someone (sadly, I don’t know who) is reported to have said something that is worth remembering: “Civil discourse isn’t about political correctness. It’s about how we regard & treat each other with respect.”  I believe that. Being careful with our words is caring enough about the worth of another to treat them with respect for the impact our words will have on them. Will we batter with our words, or build up? Will we love and give value with our words, or kill with them?

Sadly, many of us treat not only our perceived enemies with damaging words, but those we propose to love: wives, husbands, children, friends.  I cringe especially when I hear how some parents speak to their children today, mindless of how weak little egos are and how damaging their words can be to them.

Communication is not always a helpful thing when it isn’t done well, but though misunderstandings will happen they can be cleared up if we work at it. The deliberate lie, on the other hand, the use of words to cruelly or carelessly wound, scold, diminish, or get a laugh at another’s expense, can hit someone with pain that may be planted in them like a slow-growing cancer doing long-term, irreparable harm.

I began this by asking, why do we flock to and applaud, or even just tolerate, hateful speech, whether on the news, in our entertainment, or in our homes and neighborhoods?  I think that sometimes it’s because they are speaking the sentiments we ourselves hold but haven’t dared openly to recognize. Sometimes it’s because the sharp-tongued are saying things we’d like to say aloud ourselves but we don’t have the facility the comedian, or the politician, or the witty friend has to turn them into a well-aimed weapon. We admire the well-turned phrase, more so the more cutting it is; it panders to our anger. Sometimes we tolerate it because we fear its vitriol being turned on us; it panders to our sense of personal weakness or cowardice. Sometimes we tolerate it, even applaud it, because we are just thoughtless of or indifferent to the people it hurts. Sometimes we react with a misguided feeling we shouldn’t hurt the speaker’s feelings by confronting them with the dishonor in their words.

Whatever the reason, we need to stop it. It’s killing us. We wound with our bitter words – ourselves as we speak them and others when we encourage them. They wound us all. So to repeat some good words that I believe bear repeating these days, “We are better than this.”  Or at least we should be striving to be.

I’ve been reading other authors’ advice about writing and several suggest that an author, whether writing a tragedy or a comedy (in the classical sense of those terms) should never write what will leave people with diminished hope. They say that we have an obligation to make our work as writers always offer hope and lift up the possibility in human life.  I believe that. Sometimes that needs to begin by just telling the truth, of course, and truthful words can be painful too. But the pain in truth-telling isn’t in the lies about us that bitter words tell, but in the truth itself revealing within us a need to change and grow. Ironically, genuine truth-telling (at the right time and in the right way), however painful, is never destructive, never puts down people’s self-esteem, hopes, or feelings of acceptance and belonging. It offers life and doesn’t kill.

Anyway, that is my jeremiad for today.  If you’ve made it to the end, thank you for listening.

Oh, and if you have some inspiring, truthful thoughts to share, feel free to share them in your comments, at the bottom of the page.

Blessings and peace to you!


Author: Linda Robinson

Writer, Christian contemplative, spiritual director, retired pastor, concerned citizen.

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