That old saying about stick and stones – that’s nonsense, though I kind of see the good intentions behind it. Teaching your kids to say this to someone who tries to hurt them with words – it’s a way of fighting back, pretending you don’t care so that the bully will shut up because they’ll feel it’s pointless to carry on.
So as long as you teach your kids just to say it, but not to believe it – yeah, I can see how this can work. Just please let them cry when they come home, let them voice their very real hurt. Because the truth is that words can hurt. They can hurt very much. They can leave emotional scars that last a lot longer than the physical ones. And expressing your feelings can be so very valuable as part of the process of healing – talking to someone who is willing to listen, someone who cares, someone who will not try to pretend that you shouldn’t be hurt because they’re just words…
Emotional pain is real. Just like physical pain, it needs healing. Sure, there are times when it’s better to put a brave face on, hide the pain in front of someone who is taunting you – but when you’re out of the war zone, when you’re home with the people who love you, that’s the time and place where you should be able to be real about how you’re feeling, and receive compassion rather than the lie that words can’t hurt.
On the other hand, there’s another lie I hear from people sometimes, a lie I hear from people who do understand that words can hurt: that words cause emotional scars that you live with forever.
The truth is in the middle: words can cause emotional scars, but those can be healed.
I speak as someone who has been there, done that, and got a whole collection of t-shirts. Some of my emotional scars got healed through counselling. Some through prayer. There’s huge value in talking things through with someone who is good at listening. And there’s huge value in talking things through with Jesus – he knows all about pain and suffering (and he suffered both physical and verbal abuse), and not only does he care, he has divine power to heal.
In any case, if you’ve been hurt by people’s words, please know that yes, this happens, but no, you don’t have to take that pain all the way to the grave.
Oh, but people are too soft and should develop a thicker skin, I hear some say. Sure, it’s good to learn better ways of coping with the stuff that’s thrown at you, and sometimes people are very quick to take offence. Sure, if you feel confident enough you can bat away a whole load of abuse and not care. But we don’t get to choose the cards we’re dealt as children, and if you don’t get to grow up with that kind of confidence it’s not particularly helpful to be told that you just shouldn’t feel the way you do.
I feel a lot more confident now than when I was a kid at school – in large part because I now know God’s love for me. So now, if someone hurts me, I can go to my dad – to God himself – and cry to him. It helps. But I cry to him and tell him how I feel – I don’t pretend that other people’s words don’t hurt me. (I do, however, care a lot less now about what others think of me. Because I know God himself loves me and I don’t need to prove myself to anyone else.)
Ok, this post got rather rambly and meandering, so what’s my bottom line? Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words can hurt much deeper – let’s not pretend that they don’t, let’s be real about the emotional wounds. And if someone is hurt, let’s show compassion rather than telling them they shouldn’t feel like that. Healing starts with being real about the pain.
Oops. Even my bottom line is getting rambly. Maybe I should just stop now.