Sticks and stones may break my bones…

But words will never hurt me…

What a load of utter crap! Honestly, this is possibly the biggest lie that children are taught as rhyming wisdom to carry with them through their life.

Most of us learned this in early primary or elementary school (depending upon your location). I get it. I truly do understand what the familiar, childish mantra is supposed to teach and convey. It is meant to remind us that who we are is what counts, that what people say about us doesn’t matter. It is supposed to remind the fragile egos within those developing young psyches that someone saying horrible things about you doesn’t make them true and cannot truly harm the person you are.

However, it is now in an era of horrible bullying and freedom of expression where people seem to have forgotten what it is to be kind or to even be polite that we realize that the words can do as much or more lasting damage than those imaginary sticks and stones ever could. In truth, physical injuries (except for those so traumatic that they permanently maim or remove body parts) heal. Even when there are the physical reminders of scars or the twinge when it rains that recalls the old wounds, it doesn’t generally plague the individual in the same way that psychological and emotional damage does. Physical injuries also seem to carry with them at least the garnered sympathy of others. Psychological and emotional wounds are invisible injuries and scars that even when known by others are often viewed as a personal weakness instead of the respect given to those who bear up under a physical ailment.

Why is it that we hold onto the negative so strongly? Why is it that our past mistakes, hurts, and humiliations haunt us? Is it that we are all psychological masochists reveling in self-torture (often in the wee, dark hours of the night or early morning)?

I have a couple of personal theories on this. First, I believe that it is an evolutionary feature of humanity to more easily recall negative events, stimuli, and experiences than their more positive counterparts. Oh my lord, why? Why would this be a strength design? Well, I’ll tell you. Most of our collective ancestors survived long enough to reproduce through avoiding death or impotence-causing injury. They managed to do so through learning that what hurts or makes for the unpleasant experiences generally didn’t bode well for continued health and well-being. How we’ve lost this avoidance-survival instinct is anyone’s guess, but that is meat for another discussion.

So, caveman Og finds an interesting creature and pokes it with a stick. Creature objects and shares with Og the error of his ways in the form of a nasty, and very painful bite. Og says, “Hmmmm, Og not poke at this type of creature again. That caused the ouch.” Creature lives. Og learns not to annoy things that cause potentially nasty infectious wounds. Uva, watching from the sidelines also learns this from the loud bellowing and evident discomfort she observes in Og, and thus, the learning. Same might be said for the pretty red berries that cause the nasty stomach pains and rather disgusting gastrointestinal responses… or from an observer if they realize that eating pretty berries resulted in death and death like symptoms. The point being that avoidance and remembering the unpleasant meant that Og and Uva’s children, grandchildren, and descendants lasted and reproduced far longer than the unfortunate others who saw the same snake again and forgot that poking it caused the painful response or eating the pretty berries meant that you breathe no more.

Ok… and because I write these posts in between life and other things that occur when we aren’t looking, I have to admit that I had an alternate theory that totally escaped out the window while I was watching the shiny squirrels raving away in my office. 

So, alternate and #2 theory not available at the moment. So, I’ll just say that from an evolutionary and learning perspective, we hold onto the negative because that is how we managed to survive. However, the upshot is that physical injury… by sticks, stones, and more damaging options… can still result in recovery and healing, and sympathy. People can see those things, and they see why we hurt.

But those words… Yeah, those words stick. Whether we want them to or not, we keep them. We record them, and we reflect on them years later. I can still recall words and names called on playgrounds decades ago. They plague us when we attempt new experiences, or merely try a new approach. We replay the harshest criticisms and every ugly jeer exclaimed. Sadly, the closer our relationship to the person who said the words, the longer they will remain in our memories; the deeper the scars. (Yes, scars are not merely a physical phenomenon.) Even so, a close personal relationship isn’t necessary. The random critical comment from a stranger can embed itself for years, cropping up at inopportune times to ignite insecurity and doubt.

Because we have an even broader arena these days with social media, I find that words have even more power than in days gone by. The pen might be mightier than a sword, but the keyboard and mobile app can go nuclear. Many have said that younger generations are fragile or lack strength of character to stand against the “just words” their elders faced bravely and without any perceived injury, but under a barrage of negative, hurtful words, any of us might falter. People underestimate the power of words, even in the light of what can be accomplished with just a mere 140 characters at a time.

And with that…

Words have power. We need to remember that and use them wisely. We need to remember that what we say (or type) can be put down for posterity… and not just because the internet remembers all. The human mind keeps a record. How do you wish to be remembered? Words can harm… or they can build. They can help and they can hurt. Words an inflict injury and malicious intent; but the words we share have the potential to also impart knowledge or wisdom or joy or mirth. Choose your words.

And with that said:

Sticks and stones can break my bones; but words can mark forever…

Use your words. Use them wisely. They may be more powerful that you know.

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