Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. This childhood chant is reported to have appeared in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where it is presented as an “old adage.”The purpose of this rhyme is to suggest that one should ignore name-calling or disparaging remarks and refrain from retaliation. It is to be used as a reply to an insult, indicating that the insult has been registered as such, but did not have any effect.
While this is an easily remembered childhood saying, it is not true. The truth is words can be terrific tools for good but they are also powerful instruments of pain as well as. Recovery from the physical injuries inflicted by sticks and stone- and other objects- is often much easier and more complete than healing from emotional and psychological wounds.
Words have a way of burrowing into your psyche. International speaker and author Yehuda Berg says, “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”
A decade after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison he said: “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are, and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”
Marvin Williams wrote in the devotional Our Daily Bread, “Words have the potential to produce positive or negative consequences. They have the power to give life through encouragement and honesty or to crush and kill through lies and gossip.”
King Solomon said, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)
“We all make mistakes, but the man who can claim that he never says the wrong thing can consider himself perfect, for if he can control his tongue he can control every other part of his personality! Men control the movements of a large animal like the horse with a tiny bit placed in its mouth. Large ships are controlled by a very small rudder and have their course chosen by the helmsman. The human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of! A whole forest can be set ablaze by a tiny spark of fire, and the tongue is as dangerous as any fire, with vast potentialities for evil. It can poison the whole body, it can make the whole of life a blazing hell.” (James3: 2-6, J.B. Phillips)
Maybe the prayer of the psalmist should be ours: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)
The Rev. Dr. Jamie Jenkins