Words. We’re inundated with them. From friends and loved ones. From strangers. From the constant assault of media. And from words that churn around in our heads—as they do a lot in writers. Or in some people afflicted with certain psychological conditions (writers aren’t the only ones with very active imaginations).
Usually, words don’t really bother us. They’re like raindrops, washing over us, sinking into the ground and disappearing. Sometimes, though, they linger. When they elicit warm, fuzzy feelings, for instance. Or, when they’re annoying, or worse, hurtful. Often, without the speaker intending to harm.
The awful part about hurtful words is, once uttered, you can’t take them back. You could say you’re sorry or make amends by behaving better, but you might already have done irreparable damage. People don’t easily forget words infused with emotions. They may forget the words eventually, but they’re less likely to forget the emotions, particularly pain.
A few years ago, I corrected a friend’s simple grammatical mistake in a foreign language she was learning. We had known each other for decades, had gone to Europe together, and shared many adventures and frustrations since our days of being single. We were so close—or so I thought— that we were like sisters, me, being the older one.
Months later, she sent me an email. She had taken offense at what I thought was a trivial matter. I think the hurt pestered, fueled by other things she had associated with the same offense—that I thought myself better because I had a graduate degree, etc., all along the same vein. I felt blindsided, hurt. But, I also realized how easy it was to be careless with our words. Like I had been.
I emailed her back with a long and sincere apology for words that had been intended to help. But apparently, I had already lost a friend.
That incident once again brought home this truth, in a rather painful way: Words, however innocently said or written, can be powerful. They can sink into fertile ground and grow. Into something that pleases, or nurtures, or irritates, or triggers some deep wound.
We’ve all hurt others with our words. Not only when we say them, but also when we write them. This, I have also done in a book I have written.
Unwittingly, I touched a chord in a reader with words meant merely to describe the heroine and contrast her with other characters in the novel. I would never have foreseen this. I still wonder, even now, how I might have prevented this, short of changing the physical characteristics of the heroine, which I wasn’t willing to do.
“First, do no harm” is a maxim those in the healthcare professions learn. It’s one I tried to heed when I worked in mental health. But as a writer, I have to live with the fact that once out there, I have no control over how words I write may affect a reader.
Readers come with expectations and histories we can never really know. I doubt, however that the potential to hurt has ever stopped a writer from writing. But, it’s one that gives me pause.