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The Power of Words

By Sister Jeanne Cmolik

When I was a child, and other kids would call me names, my mom would remind me, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

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Now in my wisdom years, I’d like to say that statement isn’t true. Words can and do hurt.

Currently my mom is in a memory care unit because of mild dementia, and she is hearing impaired. She still knows who I am, and most times observes the rules of polite conversation, but she has limited vocabulary and only the most basic conversational skills. I call her every night, and if she remembered to hang up the phone correctly, and if she hears the phone ring, she’ll answer.
Some nights she can’t hear me, and just hangs up after I shout a few things at her. Occasionally, she’ll ask, “Who is this, and what do you want?” When I tell her who I am—and she hears me– her tone will change, and she’ll say, “Hello, honey. What’s up?”

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Then in a five-minute conversation, she asks these questions:
• What did you do today?
• How are you feeling?
• Are you keeping busy?

I answer the questions as best I can, and then ask her about her day. Every day she answers, “It was just another day.”

And then she asks again:
• What did you do today?
• How are you feeling?
• Are you keeping busy?

And I answer again.

Occasionally, the script changes. Last week she asked, “How is your hubby and your family?” Then after I explained that I don’t have a “hubby” and family, and I reminded her that I’ve been a religious sister for many years, she said, “Well, you certainly have brothers and sisters; how are they?”, and I reminded her that I only have my sister, and that our brother has been dead for many years.

“Words will never hurt me?” Oh yes, they will. Most evenings I hang up the phone with a heavy heart. My mom is slipping away from me.

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Recently there was a story in the news about a mother in Rochester who called for help with her nine-year old daughter, who was out of control and talking about suicide. When the police arrived, they could not easily subdue the girl, so they put her in handcuffs and sprayed her with pepper spray. One officer said to her, “Stop it! You’re acting like a child!” and in the midst of her tantrum, the girl cried out, “I AM a child!”

“Words will never hurt me?” I was haunted by the words of that child, the truth of what she was saying, and the poor judgment of the officers who treated her like a criminal rather than a troubled child. Her words cut deeply into my heart.

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Some years ago, a person misinterpreted something I said and reported me. I got a call from a person in authority in the congregation, who berated me for speaking against something that the community had voted to accept. I reminded her that I was a strong proponent of the policy and had worked to implement it. She backed off, then, but when I asked her to go back to the person who had reported me, and tell her that she was mistaken, she refused, saying it was “no big thing” and the incident would soon be forgotten.

“Words will never hurt me?” I had been misunderstood, and the (wrong) story was still out there, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Words have power to hurt and to heal. Words are the way we meet one another and share our thoughts and our hearts. We need to choose our words carefully and listen to others when they speak.

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About the Author

Cmolik.Jeanne.webSister Jeanne Cmolik, CSJ, has served in various leadership positions including being a member of the Congregation Leadership Team from 2007-2013. She has also ministered in elementary schools, high schools, and parishes in the Cleveland area, and worked with new members in the Congregation. She enjoys reading, travel, music and writing blog posts! Currently she offers spiritual direction and works with RCIA in a local parish.

30 thoughts on “The Power of Words

  1. Beth Hutchinson says:

    You are correct. I understand why our mothers repeated that old saying to us. My mom used to say”just ignore them” when my brothers teased me. Words are important. We should use them carefully.

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  2. Ginny says:

    Dear Jeanne,
    Your last sentence is the most powerful one! Some thing I need to work on. Thank you for the reminder!
    Yours truly in Christ,
    Ginny K.

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  3. Maria Hill says:

    Your poignant stories touched me and sent my heart into a consciousness examen—a good Lenten practice, or anytime practice. Thank you!

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  4. Joanne B says:

    I had once read that one should ask oneself the following three questions before saying something to, or about, a person:
    1. Is it true?
    2. Is it helpful?
    3. Is it kind?

    I have often had to remind myself of these criteria before speaking, which has saved needless pain.

    Thank you, Sister, for the reminder of this truth.

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  5. Bernie says:

    Thank you for opening your heart to us…..I commented on your Lenten reflection that you are very good with words….you use just enough of them…..Bernie

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  6. Pat Manning says:

    Your reflection was so comforting as I deal with a similar situation with my sister who is also a CSJ from Brentwood as I am! Keep up your good work!

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  7. Deena LaVigne says:

    Jeanne, Your personal reflections about the everyday struggles we encounter have always been a source of grace for me because the prayerful messages shared from these experiences are sincere, simple & evoke genuine compassion. Know that I will keep you especially close to my heart during this most difficult time.

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  8. Pat says:

    Your reflection touched my heart. The words we speak to others do remain with them so it is important to choose what we speak very carefully.

    Your sharing about your Mother brought back memories of our Mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s. Prayers for you as you walk this journey with your Mother.

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  9. Thank you ! I know it hurts when you try and are not accepted or appreciated as you deserve would like to be —

    I am glad you call your mother even if the conversation might not go as you had hoped… the words we speak can hurt someone . Old people do ‘forget’ at times and often don’t mean to hurt anyone! Some old folks They think they have earned the right to say what ever they want—in some cases we need to forgive and realize they don’t mean to hurt you!

    We know the words others speak to us can also hurt….years later they may surface in our minds and still hurt!
    It is hard to forget .

    if we don’t have anything nice to say it is best to wait— think about it…
    ..bite our tongues….and hopefully we will not say words that hurt someone or we will forget and forgive as Jesus forgets and forgives.
    ”I forgive you” or ”thank you for forgiving me” are simple words that help heal !

    In some cases I think it is necessary to let them know that what they have said has hurt us…..they may not even know it! Write a little note ?

    ”Time to talk!!!” That can help! To just bury it is probably not good every time!
    Sometimes we do say the ‘wrong thing’ or we don’t mean it the way it is heard or comes out. Spend time talking!

    we pray that whomever we have hurt – intentionally or unintentionally—will forget and forgive us! SO, Be willing to say we are sorry and apologize! Be willing to let them know they have hurt us! Neither is easy!
    Let’s all try harder —
    We too have to try to think before we speak!
    —then we can walk away saying ‘ Peace ‘ and mean it! Friendship will grow!

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