Nails in the Fence; The Power of Damaging Words
Think Before You Speak
Several years ago, someone had forwarded me an e-mail titled something “Holes in the Fence”. Honestly, I get so much e-mail that I usually tend to delete these story-type or inspirational e-mails, but for whatever reason I actually read this one. I am sure many of you have heard it but for those who haven’t and even those who have could probably benefit from being reminded of its moral:
Nails in the Fence
There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.
The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.
Finally the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.
The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many times you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there."
Why do you want to hurt me?
The Golden Rule
When I read that e-mail, it was the first time I had ever heard the story. That was at least five years ago and I have referenced it many times, to adults and children. Kids say the darndest things, but they are kids and they know not what they do. What is particularly troubling is when adults say the darndest things and one would think they would know better. I have been a witness to, a victim of and probably a participant in creating holes. This story really made me step back and take a serious look at the things we say to people and how it affects them.
I'm sorry; I'm guilty too.
I admit, when I was an adolescent I definitely had some questionable behavior from time to time, particularly with schoolmates. I was the “Class Clown” and sometimes unintentionally compromised other’s feelings for quick laugh. This was one of my biggest regrets, but not until after I had been graduated for a year or two. I remember having looked back and thinking how inconsiderate I had been and I was ashamed and embarrassed. I would run into people at the grocery store that I had remember maybe saying something stupid or hurtful to in the years past and I would be embarrassed and immediately thought that I should apologize for having been immature but then I thought; how arrogant of me to think that they would have put energy into holding on to some memory of a stupid statement I had made years ago and I would leave it alone and simply make basic conversation with the “How have you been”? I almost felt like I was getting my punishment or payback at that moment having to feel the way I felt so many years after I had said what I said. It is as if I had made holes in my own fence.
I really did feel so guilty about the things that I may have said to a handful of people over the years that I was almost borderline depressed about it. The only thing that got me through it was convincing myself that I was just a kid and sometimes kids just say stupid things because they are young and immature and my offenders would have realized this too. (Side note; in my defense, I would never have considered myself a bully, I was kind of everybody’s buddy, but everybody probably had to cross their fingers that they wouldn’t be the material for my jokes on a regular basis).
I was raised in a mildly volatile home and there was definitely a lack of respect. I had a very close family and we camped on the weekends and went for bike rides on weeknights and my parents coached most of my brother’s and my sports. We did all of the “quality time” stuff but my father was controlling of my mother and he was verbally abusive. Except when you are a kid and that is your environment you don’t see it as any form of abuse, you just see it as some version of normal. When I grew up and moved out of my home I spent ten years in a physically abusive relationship. The first few years I didn’t even realize that it was abusive because it was too reminiscent of my upbringing. I was physically beaten on a regular basis and I certainly didn’t enjoy it, but I felt like I was good at defending myself by being verbally abusive in return. I almost felt like I “got him better” sometimes than he got me. Unfortunately, we had two children, one of which was starting to approach school age, and while no physical abusive and very little verbal abusive was ever witnessed by them, I realized that they could not be raised in that kind of environment or they would become byproducts of that ugly environment, repeating the cycle.
So, I left. I changed my life. I vowed to never be treated or to treat the way that I had been accustomed to my entire life. Unfortunately, it is easier to give than it is to receive. Apparently, you have to have two willing participants to have a healthy relationship and a mutual respect. The next relationship that I had gotten in, I was very proud of myself. When all of the right buttons were pushed, I never resorted to anything that would be constituted as hurtful or disrespectful. Too bad my new boyfriend didn’t share the same aspirations. It didn’t take very long before he was dishing out the hurtful, disrespectful, degrading comments. Despite, how rotten some of the things he said were, I still couldn’t bring myself to give it back, because at the end of the day, I didn’t want to contribute to any hurt feelings. I didn’t want to be responsible for bruising the self-esteem of someone I loved. Unfortunately, this just cemented my role in the relationship as the victim, the lesser half, the subordinate. At the same time it was empowering him. I’m sure anyone could guess that it only got worse from there. I was regularly being verbally abused and the worse he got, the more defenseless I became. I had actually gotten to a point where I was not equipped to stand up for myself, demand any better or leave the situation.
I realized that the verbal abuse that I was going through was so much more painful than the physically abuse I had dealt with for ten years. Physically abusive usually leaves physical obvious marks. Those bruises heal; the hurtful things that were said to me would stick with me so well beyond the moment they were said. The abuser actually sees it as only hurting the person in the “heat of the moment” but it is after the storm is over that those words really resonate with a person. I got very good at convincing myself that I was all of these horrible things that I was being accused of until there was nothing left of me.
Why choose to damage when you can build?
It actually takes energy to refrain from saying something hurtful, for those people who feel the need to. But the energy that is drained from the life of a person who is being treated to that way requires so much more.
It is all about the relationships we build. We need to start by teaching our children how to treat people and how to demand to be treated. I have to say I am an advocate for respect now. My children hear all the stories of regrets and moral stories and examples on a regular basis. As adults we need to be conscious of the things we say to people and the kind of mark we could potentially be leaving on them. We need to realize that we deserve to be treated with respect and not accept anything else. That has become my biggest fault; I am 110% conscious of how I treat people but I do not demand or even expect respect from others and often times I don’t get it for that exact reason. Remember the “GOLDEN RULE”; treat others how we would want to be treated. It shouldn’t be that hard.