“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I am old enough to remember a time when parents taught this pithy little rhyme to their children, and society at large believed it. We live in a new day, in which many Americans consider emotional injury as deadly, and more enduring, than physical injury. News accounts of emotional abuse, cyber bullying, and their mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide, pull at our heart strings. Girls, the lonely, and the young are at greater risk. Colleges, including those which my children attend, have safe spaces, trigger warnings, and strict rules against insensitivity and inflicting emotional trauma.
When I was bullied as a second grader at Mulberry Elementary, Mitch routinely followed me across a large grassy field to the back gate in the chain link fence. He called me bad names, of course, but what I remember was being pushed back over a kneeling co-conspirator who had slipped in behind me. My awkward, backward fall was followed by a pummel of fists, and riotous laughter. My assailants ran away, and I was left to walk home, let myself in, and spend a few hours alone thinking about what happened, and how to prevent the same fate tomorrow. Mulberry’s administration couldn’t stop it, so I learned to avoid him, and to defend myself. Eventually my parents transferred me to a private Christian school.
Bullying today can be the same, but it can also be very different. In my youth, no one had cell phones, and Mitch’s only opportunity to cause me pain was during and immediately after school. He lived only two streets away, and knew where I lived, but never followed me home. Kids today, never more than an arm’s length from their cell phones, find it hard to escape the verbal and written, if not physical, jabs of their tormentors. Ganging up on someone, at least in social media, seems easier. Further, while spoken insults fade as soon as they are spoken, because that is the transient nature of orality, hateful words on social media can be read and reread until they become nearly unforgettable.
But this discussion in US society is about more than bullying – it is about physical and emotional injury in any context. Physical injury comes from any physical agent, such as weapons, fists, or fire, and can be intentional or unintentional. Emotional injury comes from almost anything, such as words, photographs, or facial expressions, and can be intentional or unintentional. Though anyone can cause pain, those most able to hurt us, physically or emotionally, are those closest to us – our families, friends, schoolmates, and coworkers.
The phrase “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me” has fallen on hard times in the 21st century. No reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that physical agents like sticks and stones can cause injury. Why then is this phrase, so widely believed and taught two generations ago, so reviled today? Did psychologists in 2018 discover something that no one knew in 1958? Of course not. The Bible describes the power of the tongue to destroy, likening it to a roaring fire (James 3:5-8). Religions and philosophers throughout time have understood the power of words to build and to break down.
The difference between 2018 and 1958 might be how we as a society perceive our ability to defend ourselves. Mitch pushed me down and hit me with fists, but I learned how and when to run away, how and when to kick the hidden assailant behind me, and how and when to hit Mitch back. Just like no reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that sticks and stones can cause injury, no reasonable person argues that it is impossible to defend against them. Sticks and stones may indeed break my bones, but such an outcome is not inevitable. I can block blows, dodge rocks, run away, and otherwise defend myself.
Is emotional injury different? Can ridicule, shaming, and lies slip past our strongest emotional fortresses? Are we helpless against the barbs of others? Conventional wisdom, as evidenced by “microaggressions”, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, seems to indicate that there is no defense against emotional injury. Anecdotes about depression and suicide reinforce our belief in our impotence. Some opinions imply that not only is there no defense against emotional injury, there is also no recovery.
Did our fathers and mothers not understand this? No, because thinkers have pondered how to handle personal offense and emotional injury for millennia. The Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” Restated, we have the power to take offense, or not to take offense, at whatever our critics say and do. Elsewhere he wrote “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” His powerful implication was that each of us has the power to accept or reject what others say about us. When we are ridiculed, shamed, or lied to or about, our initial flash of emotion may be sad or angry. But we have control over what we do then – how we process what was said. Once we choose what we believe and what we do, our emotions follow.
A coworker and I were leaving work one evening and a car passed. The passenger made a hand signal which I only barely caught out of the corner of my eye. My coworker said, “did he flip me off?” I replied, “No, I think that he was just waving.” Whether I was right or wrong didn’t matter – by assuming the best we rejected a potential injury to ourselves, and (probably) unnecessary feelings of anger towards the car passenger.
I teach my children that the statements of others say more about the others than about the children. When a professor complements my son’s work, the professor’s attentiveness, expertise, and good nature are more on display than are my son’s labors. When a schoolmate insults my daughter’s dress, the remark reveals far more about the venom in the heart of the schoolmate than my daughter’s choice in clothing. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45),” and He was right. Though we can benefit from the opinions of others, we must take them with caution, carefully glean what is useful, and discard the rest.
Therefore, just as people can defend themselves against physical injury, they can defend themselves against emotional injury. The verbal assailant has the power to attack but the intended victim has the power to defend. Does this mean that we can protect ourselves from all emotional injury? No, because some jibes, especially from those we love and respect, get through. No defense against emotional injury is perfect, just as no defense against physical injury is perfect. Are we blaming the victim for the pain imposed by someone else? No, we are all responsible for what we do, and will pay the price for our sins.
The Bible tells us to fear God rather than man (Proverbs 29:25, Matt 10:28) – to value His opinion more than the opinions of other people (John 12:43). God loves us; each person is precious in His sight. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us (John 3:16). Our identity in Him is secure, regardless of what anyone, or any group, on the planet says about us. Christians are ultimately not judged by others, and we do not even judge ourselves. Rather, the Lord judges us (1 Corinthians 4:3-4), and we stand or fall before Him. We are valuable and beautiful because God made us so. Perhaps we should write a new phrase.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but if I cling to my identity in Christ, words will rarely hurt me.”