Sunday, April 22, 2012

Power in the Words

A friend posted about a gift she was given because of something she wrote. The recent tragedy of my grandson's unexpected (and so far unexplained) death earlier this week brought people together to offer their condolences and we shared our grief in a very public way. The obituary about Connor's death brought strangers to the funeral home on Friday night and they brought flowers. They didn't know my son or his family and they didn't know Connor, but the words of the obituary reminded them (as if they could ever forget) that they lost a daughter 21 years ago when she less than a year old to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), what was once called crib death. They wanted my son and his family to know they weren't alone and that Connor had touched their lives, however briefly.

Words have the power to hurt and to heal, as well as to inform.

The friend who posted about her unexpected windfall as a result of her random post felt bad when I mentioned that I wish I had thought about posting that I was cooking and baking up a storm and always wanted a KitchenAid mixer, the kind that has all the attachments and add-ons, like a sausage stuffer and meat grinder, among others, so someone would send one to me. I was teasing about the post, but not about wanting a KitchenAid. My comment to her, however light-hearted, made her think she was begging by writing about her thoughts and actions and feelings. Not at all. That is what we bloggers do -- communicate. Through communication wonderful -- and not so wonderful -- things happen.

In her case, someone was given 2 KitchenAid stand mixers for Christmas and she decided that instead of giving one of them to the church or a charity she would give it to my friend. That was a lovely gesture and one that made my friend happy. She hasn't been happy for a long time and has been blown and battered by the storms of fortune -- or rather, misfortune -- for a few years. She has had it rough and the idea that what I said in jest made her feel bad about the gift she received makes me feel bad. It also reminds me that words have so much power.

In media like blogging and writing stories or articles, we reach millions of people. Not everyone will get what is said and may put their own spin on things that have nothing to do with the author's intention. Even though my words about my son were not accompanied by a teary-eyed and heartbreaking video, people responded with sadness, shock, and condolences. My friend responded to my teasing with shame and guilt. The words were just words, but the emotions sparked came from different places.

How many people can read a child's obituary and not think of lost future? If someone has lost a child, especially a small child, they bring their own grief to what they read and the emotions come back as fresh as the day they were born, even 21 years later.

When someone reads a comment meant to be light-hearted and they have been beaten up and thrashed by life, they bring something entirely different to the fore. In this case, my friend, who has had it so difficult for so long, felt guilt and shame that she didn't have the means to buy what she wanted and had to accept it from someone else. Her emotions do not negate the joy of having the gift but, like a whipped dog, she wanted to cower with her tail between her legs because doesn't feel like she deserves to have the gift in the first place. There are so many people who need what she was given more than she does and she felt unworthy, hence her reaction to my teasing with shock and shame.

She wrote that she had not realized she was coming across as a beggar. She wasn't begging when she wrote about the joy she had found in cooking and baking. She wasn't begging when she mentioned wanting a tool to make her task easier. She was writing about her life and enjoying having something that lifted her out of her sadness and misery for a while. Someone saw that post and responded by sharing what she had been given too much of. No one begged and no one looked down and felt superior because she could play Lady Bountiful. That's not how things work in the world, at least not this time in this world. It was 2 people who communicated, one expressing joy and the other responding with generosity and kindness. There is no better sense of communication.

But words can be lethal. They can maim and scar and destroy.

My son David Scott used to get into fights over words. He was fighting because someone had said something mean about me. He was a child and responded the way a child does with violence, and probably quite a few tears. He was defending me. I told him there was no need to fight for me over words. The words didn't hurt me or change who I was, and I was wrong.

While the words would have hurt me when I was a child, they didn't even touch me as an adult. I had become immune to the words, to slough them off like filthy rags. I had forgotten what those same words had done to me as a child when my mother threw them in my face and my siblings chanted them at me, when other children took up the chant and threw them at me like jagged rocks. They hurt. They dug deep into my flesh and struck bone, and that is how they felt to my son. The words were thrown at me, but they struck him, and I dismissed his feelings and his sense of pride for fighting against the kids who, at least in his mind, had hurt me. He was battling hyenas like a young lion cub and winning and looking to me, his mother, for praise, not dismissal.

It didn't matter how much I loved my son and didn't want him to fight and get hurt. What mattered was that I failed to recognize the gifts he gave me -- his battle scars and sense of pride in his chivalrous act. The words that failed to hit had wounded him and I rubbed salt into his wounds by not recognizing and applauding his valor and prowess.

Parents make mistakes, and I have made my share. Friends also make mistakes when they fail to recognize their simple teasing words can become weapons without realizing it.

I am sorry my friend took my words as chastisement when I meant them in fun. I apologize to my son for not recognizing his valor and strength and his unbounded love for me. I do not, however, apologize for these words. Take them how you will, but they are meant to show that words do have power, power to hurt and to heal. I hope this time their power is in the healing.

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