Strong Words

We’ve used the aphorism sticks and stones may break my bones wrong all these years. Since Alexander William Kinglake first published the phrase in the early 1800’s it has been used to downplay the impact of verbal insults on playgrounds everywhere. We all know it’s a lie: bones heal, cuts scab over and grow fresh skin, but those invisible injuries—caused by thoughtless words—can have life-long impacts on our journey. Words can always hurt me. 

Recently I heard an interview with a counselor who specialized in teaching people to regain confidence in their ability to sing. Her patients came to her because they ‘couldn’t sing,’ but the truth behind each story was that they all stopped singing very consciously when someone told them they couldn’t carry a tune. For some, a teacher asked them to mouth the words in the Christmas concert. For others, a friend casually quipped “don’t quit your day job!” at Karaoke. In the end the result was the same: they felt too self-conscious to sing. 

Singing, especially singing with other people, has been a part of human culture for millenia. Campfires, concerts and congregations have always been safe places to join together in melody, and right now we have very few of those outlets. There have always been people who are more and less gifted, but singing is a fundamentally human joy that everyone should get to experience. Taking singing away from someone is a kind of casual cruelty that is hard to match. 

Singing, painting, drawing, creating—all the things that grow from within us—are very personal. They start as tender shoots joyfully springing up from the rich soil of our souls. If those shoots are not carefully tended they can wither, and a single comment can yank them out at the roots never to grow again. 

Does this mean we should never discuss or criticize art? Certainly not, but fledgling artists and hobby artists operate under a different dispensation. Do we ever tell a hobby skier they shouldn’t quit their day job? Have you ever heard someone criticising a weekend mountain biker for not being top-ten on a Strava segment? Of course not. We encourage them and tell them they are doing great. Why, then, would we do the opposite to a hobby singer or artist?

On the other hand, if I choose to enter a race I hold myself to a different standard. As I’ve progressed through the various stages of my artistic career I’ve had to learn to deal with growing criticism and rejection at every level. It never gets easier to hear your work doesn’t measure up, but by the time I started facing it my seedling had grown to be more robust, and the battering has made my work—and my resolve—ever stronger. By the time I chose to put my work up for evaluation, I’d been soaked in years of encouragement from teachers, parents, and friends. 

The truth is that most of us are hobbyists, and all of us have been beginners. How many great artists have we lost because someone lacked the kindness to hold their tongue, or focused on sour notes rather than the unbridled enjoyment? Our creative journeys are deeply personal and add richness to our lives. I’ve figured out that confidence makes up 90% of our ability to perform, and when we are nervous, uncertain, or anxious things like singing simply don’t work well. We need to learn our crafts in a safe environment to overcome the hurdles of confidence. It’s only when someone asks me for pointed commentary that I know they are ready to hear more detailed and constructive evaluation—their seedling has grown into a stable plant, and I am honoured to be part of the pruning that helps them flourish.

My personal policy has been to err on the side of kindness. I noticed early on that my work improved when people I admired paid me a thoughtful compliment. My own internal critic is loud enough that a careless word can send me back down the mountain several steps. Conversely, a kind word can silence the clamor for a while and help me climb to the next plateau. If we look and listen carefully, there is always something positive to point out in a work: I love your passionate brush-strokes, those are beautiful lyrics, the colours in this piece are stunning, I love the message behind this one—all authentic ways to encourage growth rather than foster self-doubt. Kindness is a gift that costs us nothing to give, but will pay us back many times over with beauty and wonder. 

Photo Credit: Ellie Matthews & Carl Youngmann The North Press • Port Townsend, WA.