The Blessing and the Curse

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” I first heard that bromide when I was just a little kid. This maxim is always uttered in a singsong fashion, probably because saying it in a normal voice would reveal the sheer stupidity of the statement.  

Anyone who’s ever been bullied can tell you that the physical abuse is terrible, but eventually, it’s over. The name-calling, the put-down, the isolation, and the despair last a lifetime. The barbs of a defamatory nickname or a hateful comment about… well, anything! – lodge so profoundly that it’s impossible just to let it fade. The harm from names leaves scars.

My research indicates that this saying first appeared in print in the mid-1800s in a British publication, which is not surprising. Sticks and stones…etc., conveys that stiff upper lip attitude so valued in British culture. Americans were all too eager to adapt it for domestic usage. It fit so well with the Calvinist notion that diligence, discipline, and frugality result from a person’s subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith. It also matched the cowboy ethic: a man is terse, defended, and not emotional. Not to mention Frankie Valle’s 20th-century admonition that big girls don’t cry (which even he admitted was just an alibi…).

We acknowledge that “sticks and stones” is facile, destructive, and just plain wrong. Words wound us deeply. But the converse is also true. Words can lift up spirit and soul. Words can inspire us to action and remind us of our worth. Words can heal and bless us.

The truth of kind words emerges from this week’s Shabbat Torah portion, which includes the Priestly Benediction: The Eternal bless you and protect you. The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you. The Eternal bestow divine favor upon you and grant you peace. There’s nothing complicated here, no hard-core if/then scenarios, no punishment meted out for failure to perform any number of mitzvot. It’s about wishing someone else good health and luck and hoping they receive love, grace, and kindness.

This shouldn’t be so difficult to accomplish, wishing someone well with words of blessing. But kindness is in short supply as anger and bullying grow by the second. Sharp, bitter words of condemnation saturate every corner of our lives. Whatever that brief, shining moment was during Covid, when we tried to live by the notion that we were “all in it together,” has dissipated to almost nothing. Every issue is toxic, making any interaction with a fellow human being fraught with anxiety.

We have a choice between offering up a blessing or a curse in so many moments. Do we engender cruelty or kindness? It’s so easy to surrender to the forces of pessimism and privilege. But it’s not our destiny. It’s not our way. Who knows better than we do about the destructiveness of hate speech? Opt for blessing.

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