I believe that whoever said “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was well-intentioned but completely wrong. I believe that words have power, the power both to wound us deeply but also to heal.
In my work at the Centre County Women’s Resource Center I spend my days crafting words, to give voice to the women, men and children whose lives have been ripped apart by domestic and sexual violence. Too often, their voices are silenced by the community’s disbelief or need to blame the victim. The bodily violence they experience becomes even more harmful when accompanied by words like, “I don’t believe you” or “You must have done something to make him mad” or “It’s your own fault.” The silence that hurtful, blaming and disbelieving words create and maintain is excruciating for victims and harmful for our community. The poet Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Speaking through the agony is never easy, however. Especially when society conspires to maintain a stony silence about the reality of domestic and sexual violence in the lives of victims. When those victims are able, finally, to tell their stories, the words are difficult to say, the stories are hard to tell. Often the words that spill forth are, like the speaker, broken, fearful, choked out through a veil of tears.
When the stories are told, however, the words of victims of domestic and sexual violence take on a different power. It is then that words of pain and brokenness become healing words, become words of strength and of courage and of survival. The very act of telling the story of domestic and sexual violence, and of being believed, can begin to heal the hurts, to empower those who were powerless, to re-create a world of safety. The words spoken and the stories told by victims of domestic and sexual violence do, certainly, reflect the violence in our community, but they also help us understand how to create a world where no one becomes a victim. Words of courage and strength can lead us to words of hope and faith about what relationships can and should be – mutual and respectful, trusting and loving, compassionate and truthful.
When my children were small and their emotions threatened to overwhelm them, bursting out in fits of 3 year old rage or frustration, I reminded them time and again to “use your words.” Learning to use words rather than fists is an important skill, but only part of what we need to know. I believe that words can be used as “sticks and stones” to hurt and destroy, but I also believe that words can be the powerful “bricks and mortar” that it takes to build a community.
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