Wounding Words and Healing Words

Posted on: October 5, 2020, by :

Yet again I find my thoughts stimulated by the writing of Diana Butler Bass. The title of this piece is hers, from a reflection she wrote last week in response to the first Presidential debate. Here’s an excerpt:

… words are a powerful weapon. They cut the heart. They silence opponents. They force others to submit. The biblical wisdom tradition insists that words can nurture or destroy: “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4). Donald Trump weaponized words, intending to “break the spirit” of Joe Biden, of Chris Wallace, of those watching, and even of America’s democratic traditions. Not only was it mean and rude and unfair and cruel, but most of us intuited that the verbal violence was sinful. It was a purposeful exercise in evil.

It’s not my intention to discuss the US political scene in this article, but I do want to reflect on the power of words to hurt or to heal. This is not news to us – we’ve seen this dynamic at play in our own lives many times I am sure. It is likely we’ve been both perpetrator and victim of words that hurt, and perhaps even more likely that we’ve both offered and received words that heal. It is also likely that we know the difference and would prefer to be experienced as one who speaks words of healing rather than one who speaks words that hurt (although sadly there are some who choose to operate the other way round). 

Is it possible to ‘train’ ourselves to make healing words our predominant vocabulary? Confronted with words that hurt, can we resist the temptation to respond in kind? Can we overcome that very human tendency to fight fire with fire? Can we avoid trying to out-bully the bully, choosing not to respond to hurtful words with our own defensive barrage of vitriol? It can be difficult, because hurting words often strike deep within us, anchoring into past experiences and hurts, and bringing past painful feelings flooding to the surface. When that happens, we can find ourselves reacting with more emotion and fervour than the present situation warrants – present feelings are compounded by past hurts and we let fly with all that pent up emotion.

Simply being aware of that dynamic can help us control our response. Taking a moment to ask yourself, before responding, ‘when have I felt like this before?’ might help explain the depth of feeling and give you a chance to get some perspective on the present. It may empower you to separate the ‘then and there’ from the ‘here and now’, not allowing it to disproportionately colour your response to the present.

Another helpful strategy is to immerse yourself in ‘words of healing’. Read stories of how Jesus chose the way of reconciliation and conciliation, speaking words of forgiveness and acting with humility and grace.  Read poetry, listen to beautiful music, say thank you frequently, talk with people who affirm you and care for you, take time to affirm and care for others. Surrounding ourselves with healing words will help us frame our world view as one of gratitude and healing, empowering our natural response to flow out of a store of healing words not hurting words. We can then choose to be peace-makers, using our beautiful words to overcome evil.

David Brooker.

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