An old Jewish folktale, on the power of words.
It goes like this:
The words we use can hurt as well as heal…yet there is more to kind speech than saying nice things.
There was once a man who loved to gossip. He loved the attention it brought him, and could not stop himself from speaking about others, sometimes sharing the good they did, but most often sharing the mistakes they had made.
In time, however, he realized the harm his speech was causing and he sought to make amends. He went to his rabbi and explained the situation, and asked how he could make amends.
The rabbi thought for a moment and instructed the man to go to the marketplace and purchase two of the finest feather pillows he could find. He should then take his pillows to the top of the mountain overlooking the village, tear them open, and spill the feathers into the wind.
The man was surprised and pleased at the rabbi’s advice. He thought repentance would be much harder than this. So he ran to the marketplace, purchased his pillows, and within an hour had scattered their feathers to the wind.
He returned to the rabbi all aglow. He was ready to be forgiven for his gossiping. Not just yet, the rabbi told him. There was one more thing to do. He had to return to the mountain and repack the pillows with the feathers he had scattered.
“But that’s impossible,” the man said. “Those feathers have gone everywhere, there is no way I can take them back now.”
The rabbi nodded solemnly and said, “What is true of feathers is true of words. Once spoken they can never be retrieved. The harm caused by gossip cannot be undone.”
Taken from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, “the sacred art of Lovingkindness preparing to practice.”
The old nursery rhyme about how words can never hurt you is debunked everyday, word by word. As we hurl words at each other, in the public and private sectors, we duck, not because they break our bones but because they can break our hearts, and our spirits. We have never been more capable of hurting each other with words, than we are now.
People diagnosed with serious illness are too often struck by words. Just like the young woman, who, when asked what surprised her most about cancer said this: “I never thought I would be blamed for my cancer.” This doesn’t happen to everyone but it happens too frequently, in my opinion. Especially with young adults and those with lung cancer. The hurtful assumptions about “what you did wrong,” or some variation on that theme can even be posed by well meaning and misinformed friends.
I understand why this happens. We are deluged with information on how to “prevent” cancer, heart disease, diabetes and any number of serious illnesses. We read about all the lifestyle factors that can prevent these conditions. And if we are following those guidelines and don’t get ill ourselves, we come to believe it is really that simple.
On the other hand, the reality is far more complex. Cancer is a multi-factoral illness. We don’t know precisely what turns a cancer cell on, or why a healthy and fit 45 year old has a heart attack. We all know people who did everything right and still have a heart attack, get cancer, and other challenging conditions. The last thing they need is to think they are to blame.
Of course, lifestyle matters! We up our chances to stay healthy, if we take care of the basics. I am a cheerleader for a healthy lifestyle, but not because it will prevent anything. Rather, because we improve the quality of our everyday lives. We feel better in body, mind and spirit. It is also true that we can reduce our risks to several serious and chronic illnesses, if we attend to the basics. This is important, even though we cannot control the outcome.
Should we get an unexpected diagnosis, our good health can help us better undergo our treatment and recovery. And if we are fortunate enough to avoid serious illness, let’s not make assumptions about why others get sick. None of us have as much control as we think. We learn this lesson quickly, when we or someone we love is unexpectedly diagnosed with a serious illness.
So along with a healthy lifestyle, I am an advocate of promoting words that heal. My own good intentions are not always translated into action but I keep on trying to be conscious of the words I use. I fret about what we all read in the press. When we see the word “prevent,” let’s suggest a substitute like “up our chances” or “reduce our risks.” When we read about lung cancer let’s remember that one of the first hospitals to ban smoking was the Montreal General and not until 1998. At the time my children were born, many doctors and health professionals were all smoking. Smoking went on in hospital rooms, movie theaters, airplanes and so on. Even during Dr’s visits. In other words, it wasn’t that long ago, when we were all exposed to smoke.
What I Mean by the basics:
- Good food and lots of water
- Smoke free environment
- Move your body
- The company of others: friends, family and strangers
- Have fun today
- Your Ikigai – a reason to get up in the morning
We have come such a long way. Yet…
Many people of my generation and older were steeped in first hand and second hand smoke. The average age of a lung cancer patient is 7o. So let us offer words of comfort to the strangers we read about and the friends we know, who are suffering from any smoke related illness. Forget the whole notion of blame. And no reason to stop there. Let’s offer our encouraging words to anyone who needs them.
Words are powerful. Consider the balm of sincere words lovingly poured on a fractured relationship. Think of last words. What would you want yours to be? Think of the everyday way we fling words around, unconscious about where they will land. Think of times when the words of another were a lifeline for you, and how we can now offer our word’s to those in need of solace. In fact, during this time of weaponized words in almost every sector, let’s join the resistance by offering our words as gifts to those who cross our paths. Let’s use our words to comfort and encourage.
“Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”….I met his gaze and I did not blink. “Words of comfort.”
Abraham Verghese, American physician, author, Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, from his book, Cutting For Stone.
Note 1:) I deeply appreciate the encouraging and kind words I receive from many of you. Kind words can cajole, comfort, inspire, nudge, remind and suggest. Don’t you think so much is in the tone of voice – the way they are given. Kind words can also say yes and no. Thank you for taking the time to stop by here. I am grateful. Warm greetings to all, Trudy