“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”~ Mother Teresa.
When you think about our ability to communicate, human beings are amazing. We have evolved from grunting, finger pointing cavemen, to creators of iconic imagery and lyrical language. The human brain processes thoughts faster and more creatively than any technology that man’s brain has been able to design, so far! Like many of our gifts, we take these abilities for granted.
In the news recently we have heard about the movement to change the name of the Washington Redskins. I have heard and read comments from people who say we are going too far, getting overly sensitive. And my thought was, who am I to say whether the term is offensive or not? Most of the people who seem to think it is no big deal are of the Caucasian persuasion. Caught in the middle of one such conversation I asked “How would you feel if we were talking about the Boston Whities, instead of the Red Sox?” It is easy to dismiss the feelings of others if we don’t truly put ourselves in their place. Just because a comment does not offend us, does not mean it is not offensive.
The language that we choose is very powerful. We can put down another person very easily by choosing words with negative connotations, rather than positive. When people react defensively to your words, it may be that you used a negative word. Does it matter that it was unintentional? Or was it? Many of us have wounds from our childhood or our teenage years, careless comments that seared their way into our self-image. Especially when I teach math, I feel as if I am trying to overcome the taunts that live on in memory, telling students what they can’t do, not what they can do.
When we try to have honest conversations about racism in this country, we run into the problem of blindness. There are those who, because they do not see themselves as racist, believe that there is no racism in society. And if you are not listening for the language, you miss the subliminal messaging that tells our young men that they are guilty, tells our young women that they are not capable.
I heard about a group of nurses who are trying to change health care, they call themselves ‘Rebellious Nursing!’ They held their first conference, and made it as affordable as possible. They also sought to make it as inclusive as possible, making accommodation for people with disabilities; providing a whole range of food choices from vegan to gluten free; free childcare; and they bravely welcomed those of the LBGT community to speak of their own struggles to be heard. They are another group who suffer so much from cruel language and actions. In our home island of Jamaica there is so much cruelty, violence and intolerance that we don’t address as we should.
Part of their mission statement reads: “We seek to create a world where all people receive and have a say in competent, compassionate, and respectful care in their communities.” As I read through the program of their conference, I saw that they planned for the possibility that people may say hurtful things, whether intentionally or through ignorance, by proposing two simple interventions. They asked that if you said something, and then realized that it could be insensitive, you should follow it up with a simple ‘oops!’ And if you heard someone say something that could be hurtful, you should say ‘ouch!’ By using these tools, those who were using thoughtless words could be made aware of their potential to hurt. And the awareness could be introduced in a non-threatening, non-confrontative way.
Often we do not become aware of our own ignorance on a subject until it hits close to home. We can speak derogatorily of those who are on welfare, until we know someone who is unemployed. We can dismiss those with drug and alcohol problems, until a close friend confides to us their problem with addiction. We can use negative language to describe people with mental health issues, until a family member is diagnosed with one. Why do we have to wait until we have a personal experience to try to imagine the challenges of others? Words, images, movies can show us worlds far away from our own reality. We should not have to go through something in order to be a little more compassionate, more generous, more understanding.
I started to think about word choices during the month of October, the month dedicated to breast cancer awareness. Several women in my personal acquaintance count themselves as breast cancer survivors. And I was thinking that survivor is too weak a word to describe these women. They are breast cancer victors! For they have overcome the life threatening challenge that faced them. My mother’s sister was not one of that group. She died of breast cancer in an era when the word cancer was not spoken out loud. It carried a stigma and a shame that made no sense. Fortunately we now speak the word freely and openly, to decrease its power. The exposure encourages early screening and identification of the malicious cells early enough to overcome them.
So on this early November South Florida morning, as the weather begins to subtly shift into the cooler temperatures of fall, I hope that you will think about your words and the way you address topics that may have deep meaning to others. I hope you will be able to speak your own truth in a way that enlightens those around you. Perhaps you can start to include a little ‘oops’ or an ‘ouch’ into your conversations, a gentle reminder to be more careful in our word choices.
“Better than a thousand useless words is one word that gives peace.” Buddha