It was a classic case of good intentions gone bad.
I was 16, and it was my second year cheerleading. Our coach that year was new, and she had grand visions of a revitalizing a somewhat-neglected, not-always-considered-a-sport activity like cheerleading.
With that in mind, she asked her older cheerleaders to help convey her message to our small community via the local radio station. A handful of us trooped into the station, read a few lines from her script, and that was it. I don’t think I even listened to it being broadcast.
It wasn’t until after it aired that I realized it may have been a mistake. The radio blurb, while well-intentioned, specifically targeted groups of people in the community who my cheerleading coach thought could help lead the way in supporting the group of girls. My portion of the script was directed at coaches.
It was during the school day that I was stopped, briefly, by a coach for the basketball team I had cheered for two years in a row.
“Is there any sort of a problem I should know about?” he asked me, his voice a little angry, a little hurt.
“No, why?” I replied, bewildered.
“Because when you said ‘coaches,’ you made it sound like there was a problem. Haven’t I always done what I could, let you ride with us on the buses, etc.?”
“Yes,” I said, fumbling, feeling bad but not knowing how to make it better. As I left the gym, I couldn’t help but wish that I had never participated in the radio spot. How could something so well-intentioned have gone so wrong?
The end result was that a once-amicable relationship always felt strained after that incident. Although the coach was cordial, I didn’t think he really liked me. And I supposed I could understand why.
At 16, I didn’t know how to put into words my dismay at feeling like an unwitting pawn in a game between adults that I didn’t understand. I didn’t realize the harm that could happen from being someone else’s mouthpiece, the way that words — although written by someone else — could be perceived as mine, and used to hurt another. It was a valuable lesson and one I’ve never forgotten.
Because when it comes to our words, there are always bigger things at stake. Proverbs 18:21 puts it this way, “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.” The things we say have real consequences. That’s why when I hear leaders — be they political, spiritual, or cultural — give sweeping generalizations about other people, other ways to live, other perspectives, I inwardly cringe. And I grieve. Because at the root of those generalizations are the hearts of other people, real people. And words spoken with anger or hatred or maybe even just ignorance can cause irreparable damage.
At 16, I didn’t know that my words would have a lasting effect. I didn’t yet understand how each of us wields the power of life and death in the way we choose to speak to our spouses, children, friends, or colleagues. But I’ll never forget that wish-I-could-take-it-back radio blurb.
What words are you speaking into the lives of those around you today? Are you choosing to speak life? I’ll be honest in saying that I mess up on a daily basis, but I’m working on it. I’ve found that the stakes are just too high.