My momma lied to me. I bet your momma lied to you, too.
I don't remember the first time she told the lie, but I can be sure of the situation. No doubt, someone had teased me about my name. That happened often when I first entered public school at the ripe age of six.
"Idom. I-D-O-M." I'd pronounce it and then spell it out. It didn't take long for the too frequent joke to spawn the laughter and teasing. I can here them to this day, "I Dumb? That's your name? I-Dumb? Ha, ha, ha, ha... You are dumb!"
By the time I would get home off that big yellow bus, the dumb "I-dumb" jokes would have me fighting mad. Which, to my parents disappointment, is how I too often dealt with the joke. And, in a little while the phone would ring. Some mom would be calling because I'd socked her sweet, innocent child in the mouth. Or, worst, the principal would call and want a meeting with my parents in the morning.
So what did my mom do to address the problem? She lied to me. She taught me a little verse that was supposed to protect me from the hurt and humiliation. Or, at least keep me out of the principal's office.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me."
She counseled me that violence was not the proper response and that I needed to be braver and wiser and that words and jokes could only hurt me if I let them. For years and years I believed her.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
I just don't believe that anymore. I believe words can hurt very deeply, can wound and break hearts.
A couple having an argument over the checkbook or the children or the home or their intimacy can soon degrade into a moment of hateful slander and harmful comments. You rush in with harsh words spoken in harsher tone. It hurts. It hurts bad. And though the apology comes, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean what I said." There is still the remembrance of those daggers that stabbed so deep, too deep.
A while back a friend shared the manuscript of a lecture with me. It was a commencement address presented by Edwin J. Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation. Speaking to the graduating class of Hillsdale College, Mr. Feulner spoke of the escalation of incivility in our culture, particularly in the political arena.
"This breakdown of civil norms is not a failing of either the political left or right exclusively." Feulner states. "It spreads across the political spectrum from one end to the other. A few examples: A liberal writes a book calling Rush Limbaugh a 'big fat idiot.' A conservative writes a book calling liberals 'useful idiots.' A liberal writes a book titled The Lies of George W. Bush. A conservative writes a book subtitled Liberal Lies About the American Right."
And here, says Feulner, is the danger. "Our free, self-governing society requires an open exchange of ideas, which in turn requires a certain level of civility rooted in mutual respect for each other's opinions and viewpoints. What we see today, I am afraid, is an accelerating competition between the left and the right to see which side can inflict the most damage with the hammer of incivility. Increasingly, those who take part in public debates appear to be exchanging ideas when, in fact, they are trading insults."
Unfortunately, incivility is not the private property of the national scene. When local politicians engage in slander of each other's character and religious preference or when some disgruntled citizen inks a Letter-to-the-Editor that is filled with venom, we are swinging that same hammer.
No, I am not against the freedom of speech or the freedom of expression. But with that freedom there is the expectation of respect, maturity, and responsibility.
Once when I was a boy my mom took me and my sisters to a department store in our small East-Texas town to buy clothes for school. Once my jeans were in the pile and mom was focused on the girls, I started exploring the store. Up the stairs, down the stairs, around the racks of clothes, I sort of scooted all around checking things out.
After a while, I came into a corner where there was a water fountain. I couldn't quiet reach the fountain without boosting myself up on the edge and then discovered I couldn't hold the little lever and balance and drink at the same time. However, hanging over the fountain was a cup. I grabbed the cup, stood on my tippy-toes, and filled it up. I was about to put the cup to my lips when a lady working there came from behind and pulled my hand gently away from my face.
Surprised, I turned to face her as she began to speak. "Now I know your mother wouldn't want you to drink from that cup. That's the negro cup."
Sticks and stones may break my bones. But those words? O, how awful can be those words.
Maybe, just maybe, that is why THE word became flesh and dwelt among us. Maybe that is why THE word invited us to all drink from the same cup. And maybe, if we remembered that, our words would be less likely to hurt others.