I’ve been reflecting on the way our words are so powerful to harm and to heal. Made in the image of God we, too, have the power to form worlds with our words, whether they are the words we speak to ourselves only in our minds, or those we speak out loud to others. So I thought we might explore this with some of my favourite stories from the Sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers:
A brother asked Abba Sisoes, ‘If we are walking along the road and the guide leads us astray, ought we to tell him so?’ The old man answered, ‘No’. Then the brother said, ‘Should we let him lead us astray then?’ the old man said to him, ‘What else? Will you take a stick to beat him? I know some brethren who were walking and their guide misled them the whole night. There were twelve of them and they all knew that they were lost and each one struggled not to say so. When day came and the guide realised that they had lost their way and said to them, ‘Forgive me, but I am lost’, they all said to him, ‘We knew but we kept silence.’…. the length of the road on which they had gone astray was 12 miles.’translated by Benedicta Ward
This story shows the deep impression our words can make on others…. Will you take a stick and beat him?
You might find it helpful (also painful) to spend some time reflecting on how conscious you are of the way that your words affect others, and what has to happen for you to become aware of this.
This story also illustrates the cost of keeping silent in order to honour the other – 12 miles of walking in the wrong direction.
There is another aspect to our reactions to words which this next story draws out for us:
A brother came to see Abba Macarius and said to him ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No’. The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them…he returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said, ‘No.’…’so you insulted them and they did not reply, and you praised them and they did not speak…if you wish to be saved you must do the same…take no account of either the scorn of men [sic] or their praises…’translated by Benedicta Ward
This is a deeply challenging attitude to cultivate because it asks us to unhook from our perception that we need to hear praise, we need to be encouraged and to be fair, some of us feel like we need to give praise and encouragement. Although Abba Macarius is one of the most severely ascetic of the monks, he is actually saying that we need a practice that helps us remember that we don’t find our worth in what other people think or say about us.
Where do you find your worth, then?
This is a hard question to answer honestly because there are different answers at different layers of our being. I may know with my mind that my worth and identity are held in the embrace of the God who loves me as I am, and I may sense this in my heart, too. But I’m not sure my body knows this in my gut….there are still powerful memories of unworthiness, rejection and shame working at that level.
So what do you know about your worth in your three centres of knowing, feeling and sensing?
Take some time to reflect on these two stories and what they help you to recognise in the way you speak to others, in the way you receive words spoken to you and in the source of your sense of worth.
It might even be valuable to get some feedback from people you love and trust about how they experience your words, or what they have noticed about the things that knock your sense of worth.
What practices do you have that help to ground you more deeply in self acceptance so that you travel lightly through conflict, hold your opinions with humility and allow others to be freely authentic to their own journey?
A vow of silence
In an ideal world, you could take a day, a few days even, to sink into total solitude and silence with times of prayer and reflection, times of rest and recreation, mindful preparation of meals, eating and cleaning up. This may be impractical for your life right now or for your daily living, but it is adaptable. Whatever adaptation you choose, set yourself a generous time limit – maybe a week – as you will for sure need longer than a day or two for this.
Instead of total silence, choose a way of speaking that you will no longer engage in but instead keep silent. If you like to have the last word, give it up. If you ask questions all the time, let them go. If you know you tend to offer unsolicited advice, gossip, use sarcasm, get snippy or snide – choose silence instead. You may find that these responses are habitual and that choosing not to engage when someone is clearly inviting or initiating a familiar pattern of speaking is much harder than you expect.
Victor Frankl has an insight to help you:
Rooted and grounded
Once you have reflected on where your find and feed your sense of identity and worth, draw a picture of yourself as a tree with roots and branches showing what you are tapping into to nurture your soul, where you see yourself growing (deeper, higher, broader) and perhaps bearing fruit (good fruit? blighted fruit?).
You might also want to put on your drawing:
- anything/one that is restricting your growth or poisoning the roots.
- anything/one that is struggling to find enough resources to grow around you.
- anything else that you feel is important.
A gesture, repeated over time becomes a posture, a stance that we are no longer conscious of choosing and which, even if it is out of alignment with our truth, still feels comfortable.
This is also true of your body.
So let your body be a prompt to deeper awareness. It’s probably easiest to set an alarm to remind you to bring your attention to how you feel in your body…. how you are sitting, where are your feet, how deeply are you breathing, how high are your shoulders and how hunched, how soft is your jaw, how smooth your forehead, how long is the back of your neck, how much is your chin jutting or folding forwards?
And then adjust, bring space, length and ease into your body as you let your physical posture bring your inner postures into awareness. Learning to be aware of your body is surprisingly challenging and habitual postures are slow to change, so remember about falling over and getting up again. The aim here is to let the physical practice of checking the openness and ease of your bodily stance be an embodied practice of checking the openness and ease of your inner stance. Try it and see how you go.