Words Can Break Your Heart
No matter who you are. If you are Viola Fletcher, the oldest survivor of the Tulsa Massacre, speaking to congress, the words chosen are direct, honest, searing.
Jun 5, 2021
(reading time: 5 min.)

"A sharp word can literally take your breath away." — Mike Mc Hargue (Science Mike)

Dr. Olivia Hooker

Language Matters

Emily Morrison told us in the Flourish episode of Wild + Precious Conversations that "We teach people how to keep someone safe what language to use, because language really does matter. It's not being politically correct.

It matters."

That hit me hard — and, moving right along, it's what Underbelly is focusing on for the week ahead: Words can break our hearts, words can literally kill us, words can take our breath away.

Story #1: Midget, Midget, Midget

A recent Humans of New York highlighted the story of Justin X-Over Tompkins. X-Over Tompkins is the second shortest Harlem Globetrotter in Globetrotter history. The shortest is his older brother Hot Shot Swanson.

Justin, through the encouragement of his mom, quickly learned the benefits of his height playing basketball. It seems obvious as he explains it: because "If you’re a six or seven footer, and you aren’t perfect, I’ll time your dribble. I’ll steal it the moment it hits the ground. So you’ve got no choice but to dribble low. You gotta come down to me. And I’m already down here. This is my world. This is where I live. The guys in my neighborhood grew to respect me."

However, during away games, crowds of 300 would chant "Midget, Midget, Midget"

Says Justin: "I hated walking out to the court. Any little person will tell you—crowds are the worst. But as soon as I made that first shot, they’d get quiet. Then I’d do it again, and again, and again. Then eventually the crowd would start to get on my side. Cause they’d never seen anything like me. They’d start cheering for me even though I was on the other team."

Dandelion Power

That toughness Justin cultivated is dandelion temperament in action: rooting in, showing grit, perseverance, and staying power.

That's wonderful and necessary to cultivate. But when we have been dealt an orchid-like expression, we need something more to really flourish.

(As I have said before — I am really stretching this orchid/dandelion metaphor. Happy to be reined in if I have gone to far.)

I think that's where the words we use with each other can make a difference.

Orchid Conditions

Certainly, it's easy to imagine a world where we don't feel the need to chant, "midget, midget, midget" every time we see a person who is a certain height or smaller.

Just as easily, we can certainly imagine several times where we've said something like, "Crazy weather we're having," and not thought twice about it. Likely, even if the person you said that to suffers from a mental illness, they were able to brush it off.

We don't need to don kid gloves every time we go out amongst our fellow humans. If the person you said "crazy weather" too was upset by this, a gentle followup conversation where you both talked about your feelings around the words used is likely going to make both of you stronger. We can grow that way.

Story #2: Tulsa Massacre and Kamloops Tiny Unmarked Graves

Recently, Tulsa witnessed the 100th anniversary of the massacre that decimated the wealthiest black neighbourhood in America. The featured image for this post is of Dr. Olivia Hooker, one of the survivors. She taught third grade for seven years, before enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.  She was the first African American woman to serve on active duty in the Guard. She earned a Master's degree in Psychological Services from Colombia University's Teachers College. Dr. Hooker earned her doctorate from the University of Rochester.  She served as Director of Psychology and Association Administrator for 22 years at New York's Kennedy Child Study Center.  She also taught in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University during this same period.

Recently, too, 215 tiny unmarked graves were uncovered at a Residential School in Kamloops British Columbia.

Language Choice and Language Pain

Both of those stories are difficult to talk about, difficult to find language for, difficult to hear. No matter who you are. If you are Viola Fletcher, the oldest survivor of the Tulsa Massacre, speaking to congress, the words chosen are direct, honest, searing.

And — they hurt to listen to. I felt my stomach tighten up as I listened. Tears welled in my eyes. The pain, though I have no ties to Oklahoma at all, was intense.

Should we never hurt with language?

Interesting, isn't it? Sometimes, the correct, necessary thing to do is to speak truthfully, even if it hurts someone. And sometimes, the correct, necessary thing to do is to say uplifting, encouraging words.

Is it true, kind, and necessary? This is often misattributed to buddhist teachings but is actually a Victorian poem by Mary Ann Pietzker. Still, a good place to start.

Truthful, Sure.

I chose these two examples because they are both true. The first, chanting Midget, midget, midget? Nope, not necessary. The second, telling the story of the Tulsa Massacre or the 215 tiny unmarked graves? Yup, necessary.

Kind? Nope, Not Really.

Again, thinking of these two examples, neither story is especially kind. Absolutely, chanting Midget, midget, midget when someone walks onto the court to play is unkind and unnecessary.

Telling the story of the Tulsa Massacre or the 215 tiny unmarked graves? I can't see how either story is kind, really. You could make the case that by making room in your heart to hear Viola Fletcher, for example, tell her story, you are expressing deep kindness. But it's likely a courageous and painful story for her to tell as well, and likely she is telling her story as an act of courage for later generations so we can heal. So, yes, there is a kindness there but it's hidden in a lot of pain. Definitely necessary, however.


This one. Necessary. We can easily see that the first example is wholly unnecessary and the second pair of stories completely necessary. By holding our tongues in the first example, everyone has a better experience. The crowd does not have to endure shame once they have realized what a deeply inept mistake they have collectively made.

In the second pair of stories, by speaking up we shine light on abuse so that it might never happen again. Perhaps those who participated in the abuse either by remaining silent while it was happening or by something more sinister will need to process shame but once they are finished, they will be able to continue on with their lives knowing better and so doing better.

THINK: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind

An Inc article adds in two extra words: Helpful and Inspiring. Again, I think you could make the case that neither story is inspiring. But yes, again, the second pair of stories is necessary.

Helpful and Necessary

The two words that seem to stand out for me are: Helpful and Necessary. That second pair of stories are helpful in that once we know what happened and have words to speak freely about it, we can make absolutely certain that it never happens again. In a similar way to how we have been taught to speak about the Holocaust, we can process the shame that humans were capable of such abuse and then learn and move on.

And so those stories are necessary. They may cut like a knife. They may even break our hearts. But they are necessary and helpful.

Just Start —

Let's Do This!