Feathers in the Wind
Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something. (Plato)
I went to see my doctor yesterday. As I sat in the waiting room for what seemed like (and, it turns out, actually was) an eternity, I began to talk to the woman who was sitting next to me. She had come with her 10 month old daughter for one of their regular visits with the same specialist that I see. Her daughter had been born with a large hemangioma on her arm. A hemangioma — “once known as a strawberry hemangioma — is a birthmark that appears as a bright red patch or a nodule of extra blood vessels in the skin.” (Source: The Mayo Clinic)
As we began to talk further this lovely young mother said, “You can’t begin to imagine the stupid & insensitive things people say when they notice her arm.” I looked at her sweet baby girl, crawling around the waiting room floor, smiling and laughing. Of course I could imagine some of the thoughtless words that had been shared with this mother. I had heard many of those words myself. I began to tell her about Yael. I told her about going out when Yael was a young child, and contending with tantrums in the middle of the store. There I would stand, a flustered mother, completely uncertain of what had set my daughter off and unable to find a way to calm her. I told her about the rocking, the stimming, the flicking of the fingers, all of which had drawn the attention of others. Some simply stared, while others took it upon themselves to offer me their unsolicited advice or critiques. I used to say that their intentions were probably good, even if they had failed miserably in their delivery. I am no longer willing to give nosy, judgemental strangers that much credit.
As I sat with this mother in the waiting room (still waiting of course), she thanked me for sharing my story. “It’s good to know we’re not alone, even if our kids are getting judged for different reasons,” she said. She told me that she had never known or met somebody with autism, but when she does (and statistically speaking, she surely will) she will be much more sensitive and aware of her own words and actions. Finally, the nurse came out and called mother & baby back to the exam room. I wished her well, and we said goodbye.
Words have power, perhaps more than we truly know. And even the words of a total stranger have the power to hurt us. There is a famous 19th century Jewish folktale that tells of a man who had been going around town speaking ill of the rabbi. One morning, realizing how wrong he had been, he went to the rabbi seeking forgiveness. The rabbi told the man that he would grant him forgiveness after the man performed a simple act. “Take a feather pillow from your home and cut it open. Then scatter the feathers in the wind.” The man did as he was told and then returned to the rabbi. “Am I now forgiven?” he asked. “First,” the rabbi answered, “You must go back and retrieve all of the feathers and put them back into the pillow.” “But that is impossible,” the man answered, “The wind has already carried them away.” “Precisely,” the rabbi answered. “Our words once spoken, can never truly be taken back.”
Sitting in that waiting room at Emory University, two mothers shared their stories. The words, building a bridge between total strangers. Words can do that. It is how we choose to use them that can make all the difference. When a mother is at her most vulnerable, when a child is struggling or when a difference in appearance, demeanor or behavior leaves someone feeling on the outside, words matter. They can build or tear down, they can hurt or they can heal. Words can offer compassion or condemnation, kindness or criticism. I only wish that all of those not so well intentioned strangers out there could see how much their words truly hurt. They often leave a lasting impact, that extends far beyond the moment that they are spoken. Perhaps if knew that, they would think twice about the feathers they scatter upon the wind.