Sticks and stones aren't only things that hurt

When I was a child, growing up on Chicago's northwest side, there was a saying that went something like this: "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." At least that's how I remember it.

Unfortunately, this childhood saying doesn't reflect the truth.

Flash forward to today, and I'm still learning words can hurt. Deeply. Even with unintentional meaning. They open up wounds that haven't healed, regardless of who made the initial cut and who later utters the hurtful words.

Case in point: About a year ago I responded to a playful gesture of someone brandishing a box cutter toward me and said, "That's a terrorist's tool - you can't do that." A comment I would make to any of my friends regardless of nationality or race. We both chuckled and went on about the chores we were working on together.

The next day I was bowled over by an email, that said I had called this fellow merchant, with whom I have had a business relationship for a long time, a terrorist. His email said, in part, "(W)ords matter, words have meanings and, most importantly, words are meaningful. I assure you that for the past 18 years that I have operated a business in this town, many men have jokingly uttered similar comments. These are men who I know. They believe it is OK to utter these words."

As soon as I read this email last October, I dropped what I was doing and went to apologize. We chatted for a while, and I hoped to drive home the point that my playful response to what I thought was a playful gesture was not meant to hurt. I expressed my remorse at the words I had uttered. And I assured him I would try to understand his pain and hoped my apology would be helpful. We hugged. I thought the situation was over.

Within a day or so, however, the entire conversation - minus my name - became a topic on Facebook due to his posts, which elicited all sorts of support for him and condemnation of my words.

Recently, I was made aware that my words still hurt. Even though we are almost a year past the incident, and I thought my words of apology had healed the pain.

Again, to him I say, please accept my sincere apology.

I have learned the depths to which words can hurt. And how long these wounds can take to heal.

- Jim Slonoff is publisher of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email him at [email protected].