Monday, April 9, 2012

Words Hurt...

“The pen is mightier than the sword” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton) is a quote we have heard time and time again. Young people probably have no clue what it means and I have found that many adults simply don’t care. The expression of course means that the written word is a greater weapon, a more powerful instrument than a sword. The phrase originally was meant to convey that knowledge and wisdom in communication was a much more effective way to bring about conflict resolution than violence. But today, I am going to use this metaphor in another way because words are powerful, not only to resolve problems, but to inflict harm on another human being. I learned this at an early age and I am surprised that so many people have not.

Words, whether spoken, written, texted or emailed, have the power to inflict pain. The pain they inflict is worse than physical blows that heal. They cut deep. They are used recklessly, without thought, and once out there can never be retrieved. Too many people think it’s ok to lash out at someone during an argument or disagreement, or even just for the hell of it, and use their command of the English language (or lack of it) to berate, belittle, insult, or be cruel to someone just because they can. I learned a lesson from my mother about the power of words from a very early age. Back then that was the way it was and parents could and would speak to their children any way they chose to. There was little awareness of things like “verbal abuse.” Parents used words to discipline and put children in their place. So I was no stranger to the phrases: “how could you be so stupid?,” “you know you are stupid!,” “why did you do something so stupid?,” “you’re just a stupid kid.” etc. My mother called me stupid all the time and was quick to point out my stupidity every chance she got. She also used other hurtful and critical words to hurt me no matter how small the offense. She rarely used praise no matter how big the accomplishment. I learned to accept it. My mother loved me, protected me, made so many sacrifices for me, so if she thought I was stupid, I was going to have to change her opinion. I knew I wasn’t as stupid as she thought.

When I went to school, I rarely raised my hand to answer questions. That was my teachers’ biggest complaint about me when my mother showed up for parent teacher conferences. She would always come out and say the same thing: “They say you are a wonderful student and wish they had more like you, but they want you to participate more.” I thought to myself, “Yes, I know, but if I raise my hand and have the wrong answer, everyone will think I am stupid“…and I was tired of being told I was stupid. Instead, I always worked hard in school to prove my mother wrong. I brought home 100’s and 90’s on all my tests and report cards. I was always in the top classes. I knew I wasn’t stupid, I refused to accept it, I just had to prove it to my mother, that’s all. 

I went through elementary school, junior high school, high school always in the top 5% of my graduating class or higher. My mother still thought I was stupid, or at least she liked to tell me I was, somehow it made her feel better I guess. When it came time for me to visit colleges, as a senior in high school, I made an appointment to see the dean at the college of my choice. My mother came with me to that meeting because I had never traveled anywhere alone and the college was three buses and an hour and a half away. We were called in to meet a very professional looking young man, who politely told us to have a seat and he pulled out my records. We started discussing what courses I wanted to take, if I was matriculating, what degree I was going for, what my major would be, core requirements, and my classes for my first semester. For the first time, my mother, who had the bad habit of answering questions that were directed at me all my life, sat there as quiet as a church mouse. I had handled the interview all on my own and almost forgot she was even there. The dean shook my hand and wished me good luck and said good bye to my mother. As we walked back to the bus stop my mother looked up at me with great pride in her eyes, like she was seeing me for the first time, and she said, “I never knew you were so smart.” I was stunned. It took a great deal for her to admit that and to pay me such a huge compliment. I knew that because I knew her, and compliments did not flow freely from her lips. It was a bittersweet moment for me as I stood there with my mother. All the hard work I did every single day at school for years, all the parent teacher conferences and praise, all the honor roll certificates, awards, excellent report cards…all that had not convinced her I was smart. It took this one meeting, with the dean of a college, answering a few simple questions that finally impressed upon her how smart I “really” was and maybe I wasn’t so stupid after all.

My mother hurt me with her words. She intended to hurt me. It wasn’t until years later, when I was an adult and needed to understand why, that I learned the reason. My mother grew up in a household where her father was an alcoholic and she witnessed unspeakable things. There was always chaos in the home and she and her siblings lived in fear. She was pulled out of school after completing the eight grade to work around the house. These things shaped the person she turned out to be.  No one went to see a therapist about their issues back then. She didn’t know better. She did the best she could with the cards she was dealt. My mother hurt me, but she loved me. I knew she loved me. And she taught me a valuable lesson in the process.

I learned to chose my words carefully when talking to people, especially people I care about. When you use hurtful words against loved ones, they take it to heart and carry it with them, especially children. I don’t want to be responsible for making anyone feel “less than” they are, especially those I love. I want them to know they are loved an cherished, and not just by the words I speak, but through my actions. I try very hard not to use words as a weapon against anyone, but I will use them to defend myself when pushed hard enough.

In spite of my mother’s criticisms of me, I know the truth about myself. She may have had power over me as a child, but as I got older and after much introspection, I acquired a deeper understanding of myself. I am far from stupid. I have above average intelligence and I am very insightful too. I am always willing to help anyone in need, even if they don’t ask. Anyone who knows me knows who I am and what I am about. I don’t need to go on and on about my attributes. I’ve long forgiven my mother for her shortcomings. She was always a strong presence in my life. She did the best she could as a mother and, looking at the end result, I think anyone would say she did a great job. 

My mother may have made mistakes, but she must have done something very right.

P.S. I have learned one more thing too. I may have allowed my mother to mistreat me, even after I was an adult, because I loved and respected her and I understood her. I know she loved me unconditionally. She gave me life and I would not trade her for any other mother on earth. However, I will not allow anyone else to mistreat or verbally assault me. No one has done for me all that my mother has done. I respect myself too much to allow anyone to cross that line. Beyond that, I respect my mother enough never to allow anyone to hurt or mistreat her daughter, because I know she loved me more than life itself.

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