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It’s what you don’t say that matters

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --

I remember being a kid on the playground hearing the melodic retort which traditionally followed a sizzling brickbat: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

This adage seems intended to bolster resilience in the face of verbal bullying, but Zhansheng Chen, a psychology professor from the University of Hong Kong, discovered that the hurt from words can linger far longer than physical pain.

With the exponential reach of social media and the recent uptick in cyberbullying, the power you wield with your words is even more sobering.

And yet, sometimes people don’t use words to communicate but as a form of catharsis for themselves.

When I obtained my EMT license in New York City, I remember meeting many police officers who were becoming EMT’s or vice versa. Their humor was dark. Disturbing, actually.

“How can you make jokes like that?” I protested. They confessed to me that if they allowed themselves to truly feel the suffering of all the people we were training to save, they wouldn’t be able to actually do the work necessary to save them.

Their dark humor was an emotional shield, convolutedly deployed in the service of the other yet really being used as an emotional self-survival technique. How many of us throw around our words without pausing to decide if what we feel we need to say actually needs to be said.

This lexical abstemiousness might best be summarized by the verse, “A fool gives full vent to [their] anger but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Proverbs 29:11). Or as the Chassidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once quipped, “More important than writing is erasing.” I’m not saying this is true all the time, but quite often, it’s what you don’t say that matters.

Being self-aware of the words we choose to say is often easy when we’re talking about the words we choose to say. Wishing your coworker a good morning. Thanking the janitor. Offering a cheerful word to your neighbor.

We make a conscious effort to inject that rhetorical positivity into our daily routine. But as our day blurs into the autopilot grind of social interaction, perhaps it’s what we consciously choose not to say – those snide remarks, the witty but lackadaisical comments, the words spoken out of context – that matter even more.

While it’s true that one positive word can change someone’s entire day, we often tend to trust the extemporaneous prattle uttered in a flippantly Freudian fashion more than the carefully scripted good mornings or thank yous.

This reminds me of a lesson in morality I learned from my mother, rooted in my personal faith tradition. The Torah (Jewish scripture) promotes a universal code of values for all humanity called the “7 Commandments of Noah.”

Akin to the Ten Commandments, these seven guiding principles empower humanity to reach the level of righteousness Noah achieved in Genesis 6:9. Each of these seven commandments can be unpacked and expanded into many more derivative values.

One of these universal commandments is to not eat the flesh of an animal while it is still alive (Genesis 9:4). This is further developed throughout the Torah to encompass the broader concept of humanity's role in protecting, safeguarding and accepting responsibility for the animals we share this planet with.

So, why express this humane value in the negative, to “not eat the flesh of a living animal” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a)?

The answer I received from my mother, Sharonah Welton, is that the prolific prosperity of morality often begins with a simple moment of self-restraint. In other words, it’s what we don’t do or say that creates the fertile groundwork to let goodness flourish. Noah built an ark and a safe space that saved lives.

By choosing what we won’t say, we can do the same. When we clear out the verbal “sticks and stones,” our relationships can truly flower. So the next time you converse with a coworker, family member or even yourself, ask, “What did I not say that matters?”