I am 63 years old, and I am still astounded at the pleasure—and yes, the pain—that can come as a result of someone’s words, often quickly or casually said. The ones that give me pleasure are like a ray of sunshine and instant euphoria:
- I cleaned out my desk this weekend, and you wouldn’t believe how many handwritten notes I had from you. I saved and treasure each one.
- Your encouragement made so much difference to me.
- Your song in church was like a hug from God.
- I’m so happy to see you!
The words that cause pain are like a knife jab to the heart, and sadly, the people who cause them are often oblivious.
I’m writing today to say, please, don’t be oblivious! Don’t be oblivious to the power of your words.
You’re likely to be around more family and friends during the holidays than usual, and you’ll have lots of opportunities to speak words that deliver either love or pain. Please choose love. Don’t let those you love get on your nerves, even if they’re loud or eat too much or drink too much. Don’t risk hurting them with a comment about their weight or how tired they look or how you wish they’d wear different colors. You’ll forget you ever said it, but they won’t.
Others may actually be rude or hurtful to you, but don’t take the bait. Resist the urge to retaliate with hurtful words of your own. If you must respond, defuse things when you can. “What you just said really hurt my feelings because it sounded like (fill in the blank). Did you mean that?” When I’ve had the courage to say something like that, I’ve been amazed how often they didn’t mean what I thought at all. By giving them the opportunity to explain, I saved us both from more pain. Sometimes it’s best just to walk away.
[NOTE: I am not talking about truly abusive situations or circumstances, but rather the common types of interaction that occur whenever family members get together. If your situation is more serious, seek professional help.]
I just want to remind you — and myself too — that it really makes a difference what we say, especially at this holy time of year. In an inspiring TED talk by orchestra conductor and musician Benjamin Zander, he told of meeting a woman who shared her story of being sent to a German concentration camp when she was a girl, along with her very young brother. On the train in which they were shoved like cattle, she realized her little brother had lost his shoes. In her fear and exhaustion, she fussed at him for being so careless. They were soon separated, and she never saw him again. Her words of anger and frustration were the last ones she ever spoke to him. Years later, when she finally walked out of that hell on earth into a new life, she made this vow,
I will never say anything that can’t stand as the last thing I ever say.
This is what I challenge you to do this holiday. And then every day of your life afterward. Make your words bridges, not weapons. Use them to connect, not divide.
You won’t always succeed, but oh, the effort will have been worth it!