“Mom, what does ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me’ mean?” my seven-year-old daughter asked recently.
“Don’t mess this up, Kathi!” I thought, eager to take this opportunity to offer her a Major Life Lesson about self-esteem and confidence. But then she stopped me in my tracks.
“Because it doesn’t make any sense! Of course words hurt! When people say mean things, it hurts!”
I’d been taught the wisdom of this age-old saying as a kid and had accepted it at face value. And while the cliché has good intentions, my daughter’s confusion made me realize that there may not actually be much truth to it.
I think she’s right. Words can and do hurt us. In fact, words – those we hear and those we say – can have a profound impact on us and those around us. And it’s up to us to decide if we want that impact to be positive or negative.
So I turned to another age-old source of wisdom to see if I could find a more truthful lesson about the power of words. Israel Baal Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century rabbi, taught that each of us is born with a certain number of words to speak. Once we’ve spoken our given number of words, we die. What words we speak are up to us, but the number we’re given is not. He suggested that the question we ask ourselves before speaking is, “Since I don’t know how many words I have left, is this word worth dying for?”
I found the lesson offered by the rabbi to be a powerful one. While we may not take his teaching as literal truth, the suggestion that we pause before speaking and consider the worth of our words – and the consequences they may have – is one that can inspire us to be more aware of both what we say and the intentions behind our words.
In our social media-saturated, attention-seeking culture, it seems as if the nastiest voices are often heard most clearly. We’re bombarded by mean-spirited and hateful words, and I’m afraid that it’s becoming easier for all of us to become numb to them. There are days when I feel almost overwhelmed by the tidal wave of ugly words.
My daughter’s question reminded me that our words matter. And choosing kind words over cruel ones can be an act of quiet but meaningful revolution.
Research is showing that practicing kindness has positive effects for both the practitioner and the recipient. Physically, everything from our heart health to our aging process seems to be improved by our kind choices. There also seems to be a ripple effect of kindness – when we’re kind, it inspires others to be kind, too.
Inspired by both age-old wisdom and current science, I now talk with my daughter about the power of words and the importance of trying to use kind ones as much as we can. I’m hopeful that our small ripples will join others and grow into its own kind of tidal wave. I invite you to join us by considering the kindness your words spread into the world. If they were the last things you ever said or wrote, what would your legacy be?