Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Sticks and Stones

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.

~Vincent van Gogh

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” is an old adage my fourth-grade teacher once told me. This saying has been etched in my memory, and I have reflected on this saying many times since I read the story “Two Little Words with a Big Impact” by Linda O’Connell in Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Resolution.

I grew up thinking that as long as people didn’t physically hurt each other, hurtful words were to be tolerated, but I changed my mind after reading Linda’s story. She discusses two words: “and” and “but” and she explained how “but” can be one of the most destructive words in the English language.

I realized that I had felt the sting of the word “but” many times, and that I had wounded others, too, by using the word thoughtlessly. For example, when I was a teacher and edited my students’ stories, I would always tell them their content was good, but then I would add comments such as “but you need to proofread your paper more than once” or “but you need to make your characters more realistic.” I could have said, “Your content is good, and proofreading will make it even better,” or “Your content is good and making your characters even more believable will increase your chances of publication.”

In setting up guidelines for critiquing writers, I now realize that we need to praise each other, make helpful comments, and then praise each other again, without using the word “but.” I remember a college professor who said, “There is no such thing as constructive criticism. Criticism is criticism.” She has now passed on, but her words will remain with me always.

While listening to the service taken from the Book of Common Prayer in church, I listened for the word “and” and “but.” For the first time, I noticed that the word “and” was used countless times; but the word “but” was never mentioned. “How positive,” I thought.

When a friend once cooked a scrumptious meal and baked a cake for my husband and me, I told her the meal looked delicious, but she was two hours late. As she lifted a perfectly cooked roast from the oven, I saw the look on her face turn from joy to disappointment. I thought I was just being truthful and meant no harm.

I could have said, “The table is beautiful all decked out in fancy linens and your best china. The food smells and looks delectable. You must have spent hours preparing for us, and it’s been worth waiting for.” Proverbs 12:18 says, “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing.”

I have watched a smile come to the faces of my own children and grandchildren when I praised them and put their art projects on the refrigerator. I have seen that a loving and nurturing word like “and” will lift their spirits and build their self-esteem as they proudly present me a paper they have improved on.

My fourth-grade teacher’s quote was aimed at what she thought was harmless playground teasing, but she was wrong. Even teasing hurts. And today, the news relates many stories where young people have committed suicide because they were the victims of ugly words.

Now I realize the importance of thinking before speaking, even to avoid seemingly inconsequential words like “but.” Sticks and stones break our bones, but thoughtless words also do harm. They can leave scars for a lifetime.

~Janet N. Miracle

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