AT THE BOTTOM of my bed is a chest filled with memories that I have collected over the years. There are cards from loved ones, notes from my husband, Mark, and special gifts from my kids, among other things. At the very bottom of the chest is a collection of papers from my grade school years. The pages, yellowed and loosely stapled together, are a collection of writings, drawings, and other creative endeavors from students in my grade school.
The very first item on the very first page is my name: Susan Hines. It’s not there because that’s how they distributed them to the students, though. It’s there because a classmate of mine wrote a poem about me. It wasn’t flattering and, to this day, I can still remember and recite every line. I often wonder what the school was thinking by putting it in there.
As an adult, I can now recognize how nonsensical the words were and how poorly written it was. But at the time, all I knew was that I was embarrassed and devastated. And that was the moment I think I truly realized the power of words.
Perhaps that’s why, as a parent, I am so keenly aware of how my kids speak to and about others. There are certain words—like hate and stupid—that are not allowed in our house. I am also not afraid to call someone out when the words they use can cause pain. We’ve all been on the other end of it, and it’s not fun.
That was the way it was when I was growing up too. I can remember one time my two older sisters said they hated each other, and my mom made them spend the next half hour facing each other and holding hands. Even though they both recall digging their nails into each other’s hands, they admit that they learned their lesson. Hurtful words can have consequences.
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the lesson that words can inflict damage no longer seems to carry much weight. Perhaps it’s the anonymity of social media or just the charged and divided world that we live in these days. Whatever the reason, though, words can still do damage, just like those words written about me all those years ago.
But even amid all that negativity, it’s important to remember that words can also have a positive impact. I’m sure each of us can remember a time when someone lifted us up with their words. I remember the first time someone told me I should be a writer and what an impact it had on me. It was that idea that I could use words to make people feel better that first drew me to be a writer. Unfortunately, though, too often the negative sticks out more than the positive.
This month we head into the holiday season, when many families and friends will be gathering. And while it is certainly a time for celebration, it can also be a time of stress and contention. A lot of times that is caused by what we say.
That is why we need to remember that our words have power. They can either lift someone up or tear someone down. We need to choose wisely.