“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can never hurt me!”
That’s what they taught us to use as a quick response to bullying, more so name-calling and verbal teasing. I doubt this would be effective when placed in a headlock and enduring a noogie. Whenever I’d run tearfully to my parents after a sibling made a bullying poem about me (it actually was well made but at six this was not appreciated as of yet), my parents, tired from full time jobs and three kids, would say “sticks and stones, sweetie. Go back and say that to them.”
Yeah, that’ll show ’em!
No, it never did. It still does not.
Something I felt caught off guard as a writer, all the way back when I was a middle schooler writing too mature content that borderline between fantasy and erotica (let me know if you want to hear more about my first novel), was that exact phrase. It makes sense on the surface; a stick or a stone can definitely break your bones. Lots of things will! Concrete, cars, tiled floors, that coworker with a bat who just had one bad day too many…
Okay, it’s getting a bit dark. Back to the point.
It always confused me when I hear people dismiss verbal abuse (come on, let’s call a duck a duck here) as “they’re just words; they can’t hurt you.”
Have you never felt your heart break by reading your crush’s written response on your “will you go to the dance with me, Y or N” note? That small lump in your throat when you realize you have to suck it up because you’re in the crowded cafeteria and so you crumple the note and shove it in your pocket to trash later. Yeah, whatever, Cannon Jenkins. You know you missed out.
Serious question: has a book ever depressed the hell out of you? Even made you cry?
My junior year in high school, I was holed up in my room (like every day) but I was a sobbing mess. I couldn’t stop the hot tears that rolled down my cheeks, my face hot and blotchy red as I hiccupped and hissed tight breaths between my clenched teeth (I am NOT a pretty crier). My heart was shattered, and I had to put a hand over my trembling lips so my cries wouldn’t be heard by my parents, who would obviously freak out as to why their daughter was sobbing alone in her room with a paperback in her shaky hand.
And all because a fictional character died a horrible, torturous death.
Let’s just say that Stephen King is a master of writing for a reason.
Not only King, but other books would make me cry, even as recently as a year ago. Not even sad events either; I cried by the magical stories written by Deborah Harkness upon the beautiful birth of her protagonist’s children, so joyous and realistic that I might as well have been there for a best friend having their first child.
I have even witnessed my own words cut invisibly into people, people I love and care deeply about.
In university, I wrote a paper about my mother for my composition course, a Methodist minister who I’m still learning things about to my wonder and surprise. I let her read it, which at first I thought was a mistake; she gasped and covered her mouth the same way I do to hold back a sob. She hugged and patted my back, half-crying as she nodded and said, “Good job.”
My high school journal, worn and rumpled from too-heavy ink and teenage emotions resurfaced in a memory box. My husband took a read at one part (I let him) and his face crumpled. I had written in that page how I did not think of myself as beautiful but wish I did, like my parents and then-sweetheart said I was. But I didn’t and didn’t think I ever would. I read it as a dramatic, tortured teenager expressing a lack of self-confidence. My husband took it as a personal offense because how can I not ever see how beautiful I truly am and always was?
Writing is supposed to do this. Words are not hollow and empty, or at least not always. They convey our innermost emotions, the joys and fears, the sorrows and anxieties that are always there. If we cannot find the words, the emotions manifest in other ways, sometimes more volatile or even explosively. So we write them down, in journals, diaries, blogs, or on social media. We put them out there like a fishing line and hope someone can recognize it and give a hopeful tug that says “I know this. Me too.”
What would writing be if words couldn’t make us feel hurt? Feel happiness or joy? Love and hope? Words are a tool, one we should always practice and hone for good use rather than bullying as little kids on the playground do. They are powerful and can build kingdoms or undo one with a rumored whisper. It’s beautiful and devastating; the possibilities are unending and we have our entire lives to make use of them.
So yes, words can definitely hurt you. But they can also heal you, comfort you, and bring solace in our loneliest days when we feel utterly alone and cold in such a harsh and cruel world.
Poems, song lyrics, stories, testimonies, speeches…even the beginning of a fantasy with “once upon a time” can bring us warm comfort and a hand to hold ours.
What writings or stories have provoked a strong and even physical reaction from you? Please comment your take below! I try to respond to everyone!
Much love and luck,