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Sticks and Stones: On the Power of Words

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Whatever happened to our immunity to verbal weaponry? In our youth, armed with the mantra "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," off we went into the real world. But we soon returned shaken and crying when someone called us a name.

Maybe the real problem is we never actually believed we possessed that enlightened linguistic state of Teflon-like strength. Personally, I have a more Buddhist stance on this issue: words are inherently neutral. Words have no special sovereignty over humans. The sole basis for this power to exalt or devastate is the authority we project upon them. We give words the power to insult, the power to injure, and only we can end that tyranny and take our power back.

Very few people have answered this call. Lenny Bruce and more recently Russell Brand mastered freedom over the articulated arsenal. While Brand appeared on Jimmy Fallon's late night talk show, Jimmy expressed a mild emotional response (I call it a vapor lock) over something Brand had just shared. Russell Brand, completely at ease, gently repeated over and over again, as if administering a vocalized homeopathic remedy, "Jimmy they are only words, they are only words." Thank you Russell Brand. Finally! Someone who is willing to stand up and publicly point out the obvious: words are abstract ideas that take on the form and shape you give them. No one jumps into your mind and poisons your response. You alone are accountable for their interpretation by what you choose with your free will.

Recently I had my own up-close-and-personal opportunity to join the Bruce and Brand "words will never hurt me" line dance. My manager had scheduled a radio interview, something I do quite frequently. It started out in the usually way: The producer called at the designated time and asked me to hold for the host. From the start it was not a normal interview. The first thing that struck me as odd was the host was very difficult to understand. Most commercial radio professionals speak lucidly and articulate well. Not so with this man. I was challenged to clearly understand exactly what he was saying. The interview starts with a few questions about some unusual products on my website. This is followed by another perfectly reasonable question. As I start to answer, he interrupts me. I have no clue what he is asking me, as it all sounds like one garbled mess. I ask him to repeat himself. He does. I still have no idea what the radio host is saying. I ask him to repeat himself again. He does; I am still completely lost. I am also rather embarrassed to keep asking him to repeat the question, so I decide to answer the original question he asked before the interruption.

The radio show host stops me again to ask another question. Okay, I get it now! This guy is a shock jock, and he has been baiting me with lewd suggestions about the use of these products. My first impulse is to simply hang up and get on with my busy day. Then I thought, "No, this guy thinks he has some ordinary person on the line who believes that words have the ability to oppress. Clearly he has gone to my website, seen that I am a spiritual teacher, and figured if he could rattle my cage, I would blurt out a few highly charged sound bites he could replay for his own entertainment. I'm going to have some fun with this guy." He may have been to my website, but he clearly hasn't read any of my books or articles, especially those on the power of words.

When he finally figured out he could not upset my cool and calm demeanor with his obscene rantings, he moved on to Plan B. He started tossing out the F-bombs. When he stops, I reply with, "Well sir, that is one of the most enjoyable and pleasurable activities two loving people can engage in, and I want to thank you for wishing me such a richly successful experience of intimate happiness. And may I take this opportunity to wish you the same."

Now the guy is really stuttering. He is losing ground fast. This is not a good situation if you are a shock jock. He has completely lost control of the interview and is grasping for anything he can verbally sling my way to upset the balance of power. As it happens in the most desperate of conversational circumstances, he calls me the dreaded "C" word. Too bad he could not see the beatific smile it brought to my face. I simply chuckled and said, "As you well know, that is a very important part of the female anatomy, and I am delighted to be one."

By this time he was in professional agony, twisting wildly in the wind of my unfettered feedback. I, on the other hand, had grown pretty bored with the whole process. I thought, "If this is the very best this man can I do, I'm done. The evolved thing to do would be to take him out of his own self-created misery." So I thanked him for his time, sexual blessings and female anatomical acknowledgment. And with that I hung up the phone.

My business partner was in the room at the time. Hearing only my side of the conversation, he was all smiles, having figured out shortly into the game what was going on. "I suspect that he won't be calling back, and your interview will never see the light of day. It never looks good for the guest to shock the shock jock." I nodded in agreement and had a vision of the poor man, head buried in his hands crying, "But boss, I tried! I just couldn't insult the woman no matter what I did." And the show's producer attempting to comfort the unraveled host with inspirational words, "Don't worry buddy, I'm sure you will traumatize the next spiritual teacher we have on. Everything's going to be okay."

Words can only harm you if you capitulate to the assault. You existed before other people with bad manners and questionable choices of words, and you will exist after.

Everyone has free will, and we are fortunate to live in a country that protects free speech. This means you will never be able to control what other people say or when they say it. Instead of vainly attempting to constrain what other people can or cannot say, doesn't it simply make more sense to free your mind instead? If the same phrase were spoken in a language you did not understand, would it still bother you?

So precisely what is the "N" word? The "N" word is Neutrality. All words are the "N" word; all words are neutral. I suspect that was not the neutral "N" word response you were expecting. Furthermore, I suspect it would benefit us all if we would now take the time to realize our fondest childhood wish and finally declare with conviction, "Words will never hurt me."

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