Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was wrong. Words are powerful.
They can build relationships or destroy them. They can make a person’s day or ruin it. Words are what we use to express what we are thinking or feeling. They are the way we communicate with others.
Have you ever been hurt by what another has said? Have you ever hurt another by words? If your answer is yes, then you know the potential power of words. Of course there is just as great a possibility for the positive if the words spoken are the right ones. Each of us is responsible for the words we choose to use.
Newton County has experienced this powerful potential in the last few weeks. A posting on Facebook in reaction to another posting on Facebook, has been the lead for several evenings on local TV news. Reactions have been a major part of several meetings of the Newton Country Board of Commissioners. I do not know who posted the offensive picture that trigged the reaction by Commissioner John Douglas. It probably had no local connections. The original posting and the posting by Commissioner John Douglas were both, in my opinion, very offensive.
Many were offended and hurt by the words used. And once they are spoken, they cannot be called back. It is easier to put the toothpaste back in the tube. And even if there was justification, which in this case, I do not think there is any justification, one will usually not have the opportunity to explain. The hurt and damage will have occurred.
I am reminded of an old story of a man who spoke some very damaging gossip in an ancient village. He wanted to be forgiven for what he had done, so he went to the local village priest to ask what he needed to do. The priest told him the first step to being forgiven was to go to each door step in the village and leave a feather. After he had done this he was to come back to see the priest.
He quickly moved through the village leaving a feather at each door step. When he returned to see the priest, he was told he had one more thing to do. He was simply to go back to each house and pick up the feather he had left. But he protested, this was not possible, since by now the wind would have blown many of the feathers away and they could not be recovered. The priest said, “That is true and it is also true of the words you spoke.”
This is particularly true in today’s world. The old story was set in a “small world” where only a relative few would hear the words. But in today’s world, “posted” comments make it literally around the world. They are heard by many, if the media picks them up. Particularly for someone in a leadership role, they are broadcast in many homes.
The words were offensive to many as it contained a slur at both women and African Americans. And not only were one in those groups hurt but many others of us who have family or friends in those groups. Degrading whole groups weakens our community.
My experiences of living in Newton County are that the comments posted on Facebook were not typical of our community. Most people do not use such language. Most of our neighbors care about the feelings of others. Most want to live in harmony with all of their fellow citizens.
But for many who saw them on Facebook or heard them on the evening news they were taken as typical of our county. After all this is an elected official, surely he reflects his constituents. But they do not reflect us and to correct that damaged image will not be easy. Newton County is far better than the tone and content of the posted remarks.
Sadly, for many who hear or see the post, we will not have the opportunity to separate who we truly are for what was said. Just as the feathers in the old story were scattered by the wind, so the words are far beyond our control.
All of us need to help build a better sense of community by being very careful to use words that do not offend or hurt another. Particularly those that have taken a leadership role need to be very sensitive to the words they choose to use. I appreciate so much most who serve our county by giving of their time and talents. I hope all of us will be very aware to be a positive example for all our neighbors especially our youth and children.
B. Wiley Stephens is a retired United Methodist Minister and author who now resides in Covington.