Words matter. That was the topic of 40 essays I read recently written by middle school and high school students from a private Christian school.
Every one of these privileged students wrote from a negative viewpoint. One or two did contrast positive speech and negative speech. The verbal abuse these young people have already experienced is heartbreaking.
Parents, teachers and coaches should be about the business of inspiring these students as opposed to tearing them down.
I know how hard it can be to always say the right thing. My grown son has made me painfully aware of the times when I failed to make the right remark.
When he cleaned his room as a child and waited for my approval, I tried to be honest and yet encouraging. “You’re getting there. It’s looking better.”
What he heard was so different. “You failed. It’s not good enough. You’re so messy.”
I never uttered one of those statements, but those are the ones he heard.
Forty-five years later, those words are still there and no matter how sorry I am or how much I try to explain, they are still in his nervous system and color our relationship.
I am proud of my son and all that he has accomplished in spite of my poorly chosen words.
How many other words did I say with good intentions but that hurt instead?
I carry deep within me words that were spoken to me with good intentions 75 years ago. I can still recite them.
When I let my guard down, they surface and contribute to a feeling of worthlessness – of never being good enough.
My father confided to me things that were said to him years earlier that, even at his advanced age, still carried a barb. Words once spoken never die.
He did not know how to pay a compliment even when he was very pleased with some event or success.
Norman Vincent Peale is one of my heroes; however, he was ridiculed as being “religious light.”
His successor, Arthur Caliandro, became a friend, but this remarkable man was painted with the same negative brush.
When we first celebrated Say Something Nice Sunday (the first Sunday in June), the editor of the Florida Baptist newsletter wrote a front-page editorial referring to it as “Gospel Free Sunday.”
According to him, we were watering down the gospel. Does his Bible not record that Jesus said, “You are the light of the world?”
In her recent book, “Call It Grace,” Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, recounts in painful detail the verbal abuse she received from her mother.
This brilliant theologian still carries those wounds into one of the most respected religious positions in the world.
In contrast, she received uplifting words of encouragement from her famous father, but he could not erase what had been done.
Unfortunately, I know how to verbally slice you up, and I am good at it. I was a member of a successful debate team in college and taught debate as a faculty member.
I am sorry to say I have used those skills all too often. I am trying to get as good in demonstrating and teaching a better, more productive way of communicating. It isn’t easy.
Being positive is a challenge. Being negative is easy. People expect and accept negative criticism, but they are suspicious of positive comments. They are silently asking, “What does he want?”
As this year’s “Say Something Nice Day” approaches (June 2), I hope you’ll think back to those people who encouraged you. Think of those who said the right things. Think of the verbal gifts they gave you.
Then, bring their remarks into the present. Speak them aloud. Use these images to replace those of people who put you down and belittled your efforts.
There is wonderful Scripture that supports this practice: “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely and all that is worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8)
Mitch Carnell is a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com.