Image by Darwin Bell via Flickr
One of my favorite Family Guy episodes (yes, I'm a Family Guy fan) is the episode called "I Dream of Jesus," not because of the Jesus story arc, but because of its incredibly annoying overuse of the Trashmen's hit Surfin' Bird. Peter Griffin runs around asking everyone "Have you heard?" so he can break into song, telling them "the bird is the word." It never fails to make me laugh, but lately that phrase has been running through my head sort of backwards.
I'm convinced it's not the bird that's the word, but that the word is the bird. As in, flipping you the bird.
Have you ever had one of those stretches of time where all the tiny bits of things that happen around you seem to have a common theme, no matter how random those things are? That's the way the past few weeks have been for me and the common theme of all those experiences has been words or how people use them.
I've been thinking a lot about the old adage "Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can never hurt you" and I'm thinking that the adage is a bunch of hooey. Words can hurt and people are using the word as the bird.
It's been an accumulation of events that have led me to this conclusion, a few of them small and relatively insignificant and one so huge that it's rocked me to the core.
The first thing that got me thinking about the word as the bird was a
casual complaint my husband made one night when we we reading in bed. "I
like this book," he told me (it's a biography of Tom Waits,
so that's no surprise) "but it makes me feel kind of stupid." He went
on to explain to me that the author of the book is one of those writers
who really likes big words and really likes to show off the big words he
knows. I read a sentence or two and agreed. It sounded like the guy
swallowed a thesaurus and was using it to flip off his readers.
I started wondering: Why do so many people hide behind fancy vocabularies in order to say what they mean? What is the message they are trying to send? Is it a fear of another's reaction to what they have to say or is it a need to feel superior before the conversation even begins?
The next thing that happened shook me the most and needs a little background explanation. I have a relative who has a mental illness for which he chooses not to be treated. He's frequently unhappy about the way his life has turned out and, though I can't truly know what's going on in his mind, I think he spends a lot of time thinking about what he thinks he ought to be doing and then deciding that other people are thinking those same things. Then he gets angry and lashes out at people for having those expectations, whether they exist only in his head or not. Recently I was the one at whom he lashed out.
Although I know that the things he said to me (via text message) have no grounding in reality, there is one thing he said that I can't seem to shake. "You disgust me," he began. Flipped me the virtual bird, if you will. This is when I realized that sticks and stones may break my bones, but those bones will heal and these words will wound forever. Many in my family take his words lightly and resume a relationship as though nothing has transpired. I can not do that.
I finally figured out why I couldn't let those three words go like a casual finger in a traffic jam: These are permanent words. They are powerful words. They are not words that can be erased by apology or words that can be forgotten with forgiveness.
The last thing was relatively minor. My eight-year-old discovered the word "crap" and likes to say it. A lot. We're pretty loose about language like that around our house, though of course, there are some words that are not allowed and even words like "crap" are forbidden in front of the impressionable baby.
We do encourage the kids to use other, more descriptive words, let them know in clear terms that words like "crap" and "hell" aren't appropriate to use in public and discuss why certain words are upsetting to other people. In fact, his teenage sister offered the opinion that he was getting the word in as many time as possible before school started and she's probably right.
Again, I started wondering: Why is it that some words have such a powerful emotional value? Who decided that the 7 dirty words you can't say on television are the really bad ones?
So, I've spent the past few weeks stuck in my own head, trying to figure out what to do with all of these words, trying to figure out why so many people are verbally flipping each other off. Trying to figure out when to flip back, what to say to unforgivable words and why some words are so much more meaningful than others.
I do know this, words may wound, but they can also heal. That's why I'm a writer. In writing all of this down, I've helped to organize my own thoughts and heal a little.
Other than that I'm stymied. I have no solutions, no answers, no insights other than those I've shared in this blog post.
Oh, yeah, and have you heard? (The word is the bird.)