Sometimes, Words Hurt More than Sticks and Stones
The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me” was first recorded in the 1860s and is something parents have since used to soothe their children’s hurt feelings. And while it may be true that words cannot break bones, they certainly have the power to cause tremendous pain to those at whom they are directed.
Earlier this month, Brenda Millson, a grandmother in Canada, received an anonymous letter from one of her neighbors. The letter was a hate-filled missive directed at Brenda and her 13-year-old grandson, Max. Max is on the autism spectrum and often spends the night at his grandmother’s home. The author of the letter complains about the noises that Max makes and then, after suggesting that Max will never find employment or a marriage partner, proceeds to encourage that Max be euthanized – but only after the scientific donation of his “non-retarded body parts.” An entire, single-spaced letter filled with similar vitriolic statements and it concludes:
Do the right thing and move or euthanize him!!! Either way, we are ALL better off!!! Sincerely, one pissed off mother!
No bones have been broken here, but it is impossible to believe that Max’s family has not been devastated by a letter loaded with line after line of disgusting, vile comments about their son/grandson.
Our tradition teaches that just as the entire world was created through God’s word, so too can speech destroy a world. In other words, it’s not just the sticks and stones that can cause permanent destruction.
As the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I know all too well the pain that is caused by name-calling. I will never forget the soul-crushing sensation I felt when our son, Ben, wanted to know what “retarded” meant – because the question was in reaction to the name he had been called by kids at school.
The letter sent to Brenda Millson in Canada was a horrid display of hatred, cowardice, intolerance, and fear. It was one incident out of the many that individuals who are deemed “different” face on an all-too-regular basis.
But who among us is innocent? Surely we do not count among ourselves, among our family and our friends, an individual who would send such a painful letter. Yet, is there one who can stand before the Holy One this Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, and claim innocence from using an outdated, degrading term to describe someone with a developmental disability? Or shared a meme on Facebook that demeans a certain segment of our community? Or laughed at a joke that defames an ethnic group?
During the season of our reflection, let us review the language we use and make certain that when we use words, we use them only to build up and never to tear down. Because while sticks and stone can break bones, it is our words than can cause irreparable damage.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, is a contributing writer at The New Normal: Blogging Disability and whose work appears regularly on Kveller.com as well as a variety of other online sites. Writing at This Messy Life, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccaschorr.