Sticks and Stones: Why That Old Children’s Rhyme Is So Wrong

Aug 12, 2019

In this era of hate speech, it is words that hurt and words that heal.

A few weeks ago I shared something controversial on my Facebook page. Some readers found it offensive. I understood why. What I didn’t understand and still don’t, is the vehemence of their responses: the insults, the abrasiveness, the subtle intimidation.

My first impulse was to fight back. How dare someone speak to me this way? I deserve respect. I won’t be bullied. You can’t tell me what to say (or post) because you are (fill in a string of unflattering adjectives). The conversation inside my head was deafening and not very civil.

So I sat with my feelings rather than react. (Advice I give my clients). I was hurt and confused. I felt attacked. I shut down. My curiosity about their viewpoints and my willingness to engage in conversation took an express train out of town.

I don’t expect people to like or agree with me all the time. I can handle disagreements and manage my hurt feelings. But my back gets up when I feel attacked or my integrity is insulted. I wanted to put those people in their places.

But I didn’t, because I know that revenge brings only short-term satisfaction and long-term regret. As the old saying goes (with a bit of modification): revenge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Or, as the Buddha is alleged to have warned: “When seeking revenge, first dig two graves.”

What happened on my Facebook page is a microcosm of what is happening all over our country. Our national debate on many important and complex subjects has boiled down to this: Are you with me or against me? As if there is no middle way and a person can belong only in one camp. I don’t like this either/or, with me or against me, attitude in others. I like it even less in myself.

Complex problems and divisions in society will never be solved if we talk only to people who agree with us, because all we are doing is reinforcing our similar points of view. No new information, especially ideas that contradict or question the prevalent view, will ever enter the conversation. Too often the fate of the person who raised the controversial idea or dares to disagree with others in the group is to be cut from the herd. Or worse.

If I were to build a rocket ship, I would include on my team, someone who thinks it can’t be done. Because that’s the person who will keep me from failing by pointing out my mistakes, my oversights. I might not like what he or she has to say, but I hope to recognize the value of a different point of view.

Does this mean I have no limits? No bottom line? That anyone can do or say whatever to me and I won’t protect myself? Now we’re back to sticks and stones vs. words. In the case of physical assaults—I’ve already been through that (see my blog of October 9, 2018). Back then, I did what I needed to do to save myself from further injury.

I would do it again. But when it comes to words or ideas, I need a different strategy. We all do. One where we can protect ourselves without harming others in the process. Because, the opposite of hate is not, as you might expect, love. It is the absence of ill will; the intention to do no harm. Perhaps this fable will illustrate what I mean.

An ancient sage was sitting with a guest he had invited for dinner. The guest was angry at his host, heaping him with insults and complaints. The sage listened and then asked his guest the following question.

“Do you have guests at your house?”

The angry man said that he did.

“If you offered your guest food that he refused, who would that food belong to?”

“To me,” the angry man said. “If the guest won’t accept my food, it would be mine.”

“In the same way,” said the sage, “I do not accept your anger, it belongs to you. It is all yours. To return anger with anger, taunt with taunt, is to share a meal of poisoned food.”

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to, please follow me on FB.


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