Sticks and Stones: Walking Between Worlds

October 12, 2010 at 10:45 pm (Walking Between Worlds) (, , , , )

Many of us grew up with the adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” In most cases, it was our parents who taught us to recite this little ditty any time we were faced with the verbal evidence of the cruelty of others. This simple rhyme was designed to provide us with a kind of mental shield against the hateful language that might come our way. For most of us, it did not take long to realize that we had been duped. With the best of intentions, our elders had tried to provide us with a tool which we soon discovered was woefully inadequate for protecting our tender psyches. Far too often, we stood red-faced and silent, teeth and fists clinched, as we mentally recited our rhyming shield over and over trying to convince ourselves that the name-calling and hateful remarks did not hurt us. All the while, we were feeling every internal bashing of our identity and bearing our bruises on the inside. Those of us who suffered frequent and painful verbal assaults learned that the mental shield let a lot of linguistic rocks get through. If we were lucky, we learned to bear the spoken barbs and arrows with some childhood form of dignity—perhaps we learned how to throw back our own clever retorts; on occasion, we learned to ignore what we could not change and walk away. Some of us learned to respond in ways that only made things worse. Whatever the case, there is one definite thing we did learn.
Words hurt. Certain words hurt worse than others. Sometimes, they hurt for a long time. Stupid. Ugly. Good-for-nothing. Cross-eyed. Queer. Faggot. Homo. Dyke. By the time we are grown, we have already learned what the therapeutic professionals are paid to tell us: certain external words, phrases and images become insidious aspects of our internal language. They play a huge roll in the formation of our sense of self. The words that hurt us are virus-like in their silent internal destruction—they work stealthy just below the surface of our conscious thoughts and perspectives poisoning and perverting our sense of identity. Some of us are able to recognize and overcome the symptoms of our particular linguistic viruses. Some of us are just naturally more able to manifest immunity and develop a fairly actualized self. Others of us are deeply affected and heal more slowly. Some, unfortunately, never really heal at all.

The recent rash of teen and young-adult suicides has affected me. I have found myself traveling the winding roads of my own dark and forested memories—the daily wisecracks about my gender for most of my life, the slurs about my bad eye, the frequent slams about every little aspect of my personality that made me different. Made me “other.” And, I have found myself wondering, as I often have over the years, what it was that made it possible for me to survive. What is that, every time I was at the edge and ready to jump off, pulled me back to a decision to live, to see things through to the other side?

I think there are many answers to this question. A primary factor, I am sure, is that very little of the negative messages I got came from my family. I was lucky—and blessed—to have a lot of people who loved me, even if they did not always understand me. I think the other basic factor is that I am, by nature, tenacious and persistent; as I was growing up that translated into a stubborn refusal to be bested if I could prevent it. I was almost spiteful about hanging on to the bitter end of a thing. I just happen to be adaptive and unwilling to tap out—which, on occasion, has been costly. I want to be clear, however, that surviving does not mean that I was not wounded. It does not mean that there was not much to overcome and heal. It does not mean that I do not, still, sometimes suffer the sting of verbal attacks. Sometimes, these are more painful now that they were when I was younger.

I have come to believe that, for all our apparent progress, intolerance is growing—again—in our culture, as is the damage done by words, phrases and imagery. The phenomenon of bullying is one place where technology has not helped our society. The immediacy of the transfer of information has made it possible for language-based and imagery-based bullying and abuse to reach a greater audience. Gone are the days when the witnesses to such attacks are confined to those within earshot. A young, fragile life can be devastatingly altered in a matter of seconds. This is unacceptable. And, yet, the culture at large has not only tolerated the behavior, it has encouraged it.
An example was provided by Anderson Cooper in a discussion on the Ellen show. He was appalled when he took his family to the premier of a new movie and was subjected to a trailer for an upcoming film in which the chosen scene involved one character saying “that’s so gay” about something done by another character in the film. As I listened to him, I was struck by a particular personal recognition of our human defense systems. As common as this verbiage is, I had sort of tuned it out. I have heard it countless times. I know it is one of the now cool ways to bash a person whether their sexual orientation is at issue or not. However, I had somehow pushed it into a place in my head where I don’t attend to it—I do not really hear it. Nor do I really hear other phrases that are worse. As does a member of any feared and oppressed group, I have become numbed in a way that affects my hearing of things that are intolerable but on the periphery.
This, too, is unacceptable. Yet, it is part of an innate system of defenses that allows us to survive all manner of insults and difficulties—the ability to tune out. I was ashamed of my lack of attention.

So, I have been sitting with all of this. Allowing myself to remember. Letting myself feel sadness and indignation for the newly fallen. And, allowing myself some room for the still tender child within me who I have raised and who hurts for the adult who still has to hear the cruelty of others on a fairly regular basis. Like the woman at the doctor’s office the other day who, in her loudest inside voice, “whispered” to the woman next to her—and, thus, to the rest of the people in the waiting room—“is that a man or a woman?” She was sitting directly in front of me and was looking right at me as she quizzed her equally ignorant friend. The friend’s loud response was: “Who? Where?” To which loud-whisper-lady responded: “right in front of you, you dummy!”
Dummy, indeed.
Mostly, I have been practicing some acceptance of my social outrage. My anger that we have learned nothing from the many examples of intolerance that we have suffered in this country alone. The near genocide and abuse of the native Indians here. The vilification of Blacks. The McCarthy era. The fear and abuse of Asian Americans during and after the war. The current treatment of Muslims. The countless intolerant behaviors toward any group viewed by the dominant culture as “other” and therefore less than and hated. The seemingly unending fear, vilification and abuse of anyone who even appears to be homosexual, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. The list is long.

I hurt for the young lives lost. For those to follow. I hurt for those of us who have survived, but not without a cost—and for whom the loss of another child, brother, or sister opens old wounds as we grieve for living in a world that tolerates the abuse of and loss of its children. But, I also hope. I hope that the presence of each survivor makes the world a safer and better home for those who suffer. I hope that all of us who have survived—young and older—will stand up and be counted. And that the message we send by our standing, still, is heard:
You are not alone. We are here. You are loved. You have value. We survived, and so shall you.

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