Finding Inspiration

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I  was having a difficult time finding inspiration for writing my blog today. I’ve been enjoying doing this task five days a week for almost five years now, and there really are very few days when I search desperately for a topic. When that happens I usually serf the Internet hoping to find something that sends a sudden burst of ideas to my brain. Today was one of those times when nothing was coming to mind, so I spent some time reading posts on my Facebook wall hoping desperately that something would jump from the page to tickle my fancy.

I read about a friend who had run a half marathon and ended up exhausted and hurting. I was intrigued by what she had done, but since it would never even cross my mind to think of doing such a thing I didn’t exactly come up with fertile ideas for writing when I read about her adventure. How far would I get reiterating the idea that my knees no longer allow me to run, and that I have little or no desire to push myself into a state of pain doing anything. It became obvious to me that I would have to keep reading if I was to find any kind of material for creating an essay. That’s when I saw  a post from a high school friend that sent me into gales of laughter.

He was asking if anyone had an extra set of feet for an artificial Christmas tree because he was unable to locate his. He had searched closets and attics and all sort of places all to no avail. Friends in his age group razzed him about getting old and the inevitability of becoming forgetful. I identified completely because I had decided on a great blog topic only an hour or so before, but couldn’t recall what it had been for the life of me. Lately I’ve had to learn to write things down as soon as they come to mind or the slightest interruption may erase them forever. My husband had asked me a question and in the short space of time that it took me to respond I literally forgot what I had intended to write about for today. So there I was wondering what to put on a page.

That’s when I saw yet another post from a former teacher friend who was asking for advice on what to do to find inspiration when it eludes us. There were some great ideas like gazing up at the sky, but it was very dark and rainy where I was, so that didn’t seem to be an option. I’d already tried looking for interesting quotes and perusing the news, none of which jostled even an iota of creativity. That’s when I thought of the many times when I had a deadline for an essay, and I drew a blank regarding what to compose.

Writer’s block is the stuff of legend. After creating the masterpiece The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled to regain his footing. Somehow he was not able to repeat his performance as a writer and it lead to depression and alcoholism, so I know I shouldn’t feel too bad if I find myself without ideas now and again. Still it is so frustrating, and I remember one occasion in particular when I stared at a page with the same painful realization that I was as stumped as Jack in The Shining. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to write the same sentence over and over again. I was unable to even string together a nonsensical group of words, and it threw me into a panic because I was taking a class at the time, and my assignment was due the following day.

I was willing to admit that procrastination had created my dilemma, but that was little comfort as the clock ticked away. It seemed that the harder I tried, the more locked up my brain seemed to be. Taking a walk did little to help. Lying down and attempting to quiet my mind did not work. Screaming my frustration only felt worse, because I knew that I must have sounded ridiculous. I was on the verge of panic and tears when my husband brought me a cold beer.

I looked at him as though he had two heads. I argued that drinking a brew might only make me sleepy and then I would really be in a pickle. I thought of poor Fitzgerald and how not even a prolonged bender alleviated his problems. I failed to see how pausing for a sip of suds was going to change the situation, but I had almost reached a breaking point, so I surrendered to the idea.

I relaxed a bit while enjoying the amber liquid, and as I did I became quite mellow, so much so that I wondered if I would just drift off into slumber and end up having to attend class without completing the assignment. I was certain that I was totally in trouble, when I slowly found myself considering a number of out of the box ideas. The more gulps I took of the beer, the more fertile my thoughts became, and before long I was banging out a paper that in that moment made me feel as though I was writing the next great educational document. My fingers were barely able to keep up with the flood of ideas that filled the once blank paper with a sea of characters forming words, sentences, paragraphs and entire pages. Not more than an hour later I was proof reading my manuscript and creating the final copy for submission.

I went to bed that night feeling relaxed and accomplished. My alcohol soothed brain was bristling with greatness, or at least it felt that way. Sadly by morning I wasn’t as sure of myself, but I had to work all day and understood that I was stuck with the essay that I had written with a muddled mind and no time to change it in any way. Rather than torture myself I decided not to even read it again, and I began to feel a dark sense of foreboding. Somehow I believed that any chance of getting a decent grade was doomed. I chastised myself for allowing such a situation to exist in the first place, but it was too late.

As it happened, I had somehow unlocked the creative juices of my brain with my drinking binge and my paper proved to be more than satisfactory. When I saw the grade I was amused that I had pulled off my smoke and mirrors magic trick. The professor wrote dazzling comments about my brilliance, but I could only laugh at the fact that I was unable to remember what I had written. (Bear in mind that it takes very little for me to become the victim of a drunken state, so that beer had rendered me rather incoherent, but apparently still somehow in control of my faculties. I now fully understood why so many writers turn to drink as a muse.)

My latest episode of writer’s block and the search for inspiration lead me into a discussion of over imbibing with a group of relatives. My brother who is almost a tee totaler spoke of a time when he enjoyed himself a bit too much and engaged in a match of chess with a graduate of MIT after running a foot race with his buddies. Surprisingly he recalls the incident as the best game that he has ever played, and he was so relaxed that he won handily in both the race and the chess game. Others told of amazing feats like being able to do pushups on a countertop, or dancing like Fred Astaire. It seems that rather than inspiration, what we all found was a way to eliminate our inhibitions.

I certainly would never recommend my inebriated writing method as a regular means of expressing my thoughts. It might have ended quite badly, but for a bit of luck. I suspect that the secret was that I was able to relax, and I might have accomplished the same thing with a brisk walk or a few minutes of meditation. It may well have been my brother’s exercise before the chess match that was the source of his winning ways, and not the vodka. It didn’t seem to work for F. Scott Fitzgerald, so it may be a mistake to think that it worked for us.

Anyway, I’ve somehow managed to fill a blog with a bit of nostalgia and nonsense and maybe even some hidden ideas for finding inspiration. In the future, however it is no doubt best to write down the ideas that I have before I lose those thoughts. It is a lot less frustrating than tackling an empty page.

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Sticks and Stones

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The English language has the power of being beautifully expressive, poetic. At the same time it can be curt, crass, hurtful. Changing the order of words or punctuation sometimes drastically alters the meaning of a sentence. When phrases are uttered nuances in intonation transform them into vocal images. Throughout history there have been individuals with astonishing capabilities for using words to clarify, inspire, affect. These have been the authors, poets, teachers, speakers who have used their facility with language as art, education, and political persuasion. The best among them leave legacies that are studied and revered from age to age. The variety and elegance of language makes it an instrument of profound possibilities. Unfortunately when words are in the hands of someone who does not know how to use them as they were intended they become vehicles of confusion and even hurt.

I have a major in English, but became a mathematics teacher. I believe that my adequate abilities in connection with my native language helped me to explain and demystify concepts using words that my students were able to understand. I consider my facility with expression to be well suited for most of the tasks in which we must convey our thoughts. Nonetheless there have been multiple occasions in which what I was attempting to communicate was totally misunderstood. This generally happened when I was addressing a large group or in those moments when I chose to write down my ideas. Without body language, facial expressions, and opportunities for clarification it is more likely than not that confusion will occur. Because I realize that such possibilities exist I try to carefully analyze and measure my words before making them public so that I will not damage feelings or foment anger. In spite of my efforts I am almost certain that the sentences that I craft may not always be taken in the ways that I intended, and so I do not ever feel personally attacked if a reader or listener finds fault.

A source of great pride for my mother was that she was masterful with the English language. I suppose that it stemmed from the fact that her parents were immigrants whose facility with English was either lacking or nonexistent. Her father demanded that she and her siblings speak in the national tongue and develop comfort with it. By the time she was in high school she was lauded by her teachers for having an imposing command of vocabulary, grammar, usage and punctuation. She had the eye of an editor and the ear of a college professor when it came to finding mistakes in sentence construction, spelling and pronunciation. I suppose that she passed this affinity for language down to me and my brothers because I never found it difficult to write and speak properly. I’d already had one of the best instructors at home.

We are accustomed to witnessing a certain level of refinement in both the orations and essays of our presidents. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is remarkable in its brilliance and the brevity with which it illuminates the rights of mankind. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is both moving and inspiring. We still quote John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation after the Challenger explosion was exactly the message that we needed to hear.  So it is with a certain level of consternation that we realize that President Donald Trump struggles with expressing himself in a coherent and intelligent manner. As long as he is reading a prepared document he is fine, but as soon as he is speaking off the cuff his deficiencies become all to apparent.

If I were attempting to help President Trump to improve his writing and speaking abilities I would first address his lack of an extensive vocabulary. We all overuse certain words and phrases but his limited stable of words is dramatic. He struggles to move beyond descriptors such as “big, biggly, huge, fantastic, really good, the best” and so on. His statements lose impact because he is so often at a loss for more edifying vocabulary.

The other problem that is perhaps the president’s major flaw is that he does not elaborate enough to clarify his remarks. He leaves so many ideas to be inferred that the imagination goes to notions that he probably never intended. Because of my background as a teacher I often find myself filling in the blanks of his utterances. I translate what he has actually said into what I believe that he has said. I suspect that I’m rather good at doing that because even when he is misunderstood and has to back track to explain himself I have usually been correct in my original assessment. The trouble is that not everyone takes the time to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt by attempting to discern what he may have meant, and so he finds himself causing a stir again and again. Usually he becomes so frustrated that he eventually hurls insults at those who have questioned him and his good intentions blow up in his face.

Another terrible habit that the president has is exaggeration. It goes to those favorite words of his and speaks loudly of his personality. He has to win, be the best, come out on top. Every oration becomes a power play reminding me of the child in the classroom who needs constant attention and adulation. Because President Trump demands to be the center of the universe he will even resort to lies at times just to appear to be more grandiose. I don’t understand how he thinks that we won’t recall what he has said in the heat of the moment. Like a child boasting on the playground he will resort to insult  if necessary just to be in control of the discussion. He uses words like weapons rather than healing agents. His art of the deal always seems to come down to an insistence on a “my way or the highway” kind of negotiation.

While some may find his ways of expressing himself refreshingly honest I see his mauling of language as an embarrassment. He is in such a powerful position that every word matters, and as of now he appears to be making far more enemies than friends. It may take years for the nation to recover from the trauma that he dispenses on a daily basis. Most of the damage he is inflicting need not happen if only he were to develop a more diplomatic tone, especially when attempting to comfort a Gold Star widow or when dealing with an allied nation.  He really does need to forget the chip on his shoulder and remember that none of what he does is about him. It should instead be about addressing all of us in a more honorable and selfless tone.

I wasn’t born yesterday. I know when someone is pressuring me to accept his/her point of view. Sadly each time President Trump speaks I feel as though I am in the presence of someone who is desperately attempting to sell me a bill of goods. My brain almost instantly turns off when he becomes abusive or combative. What he says does not touch either my heart or my head and yet I have suspected for some time that somewhere inside the mangled thoughts that he professes there is actually a very good heart. I have seen flashes of his compassion and desire to please us, but until he sets aside his own needs for those of the country he will continue to stir controversy over utterances and tweets rather than actually getting things done. He somehow doesn’t realize or just doesn’t care that some of us want him to be successful, but simply can’t abide by the vindictive sound of his interactions with those with whom he does not agree.

I know that my advice to our president will fall on deaf ears. He is who he is, but I think he might be better. Other men and women have risen to the challenges of their moments in history and guided people with eloquence. Winston Churchill comes to mind when I think of someone who changed himself and saved a nation. His words became a buttress against tyrants. He momentarily set aside his own needs to become the voice of freedom and steadiness in a world gone mad. How I wish that President Trump would take a page from Churchill’s life and use his words to inspire rather than hurt. I don’t suppose that I will ever see that, but I can wish.

Satisfaction

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Last year my high school Class of 1966 had its fiftieth reunion. It was fun seeing people who had dropped out of my life for so long. Since then I’ve tried to stay in touch with many of them via Facebook and the occasional lunches and such that our class leaders schedule. I’ve attended a few funerals as well where I have encountered the most faithful among us. Mostly those sad occasions have been for the parents of my school pals, but now and again we gather for one of our own. I have written blogs about many of those people in an effort to honor their memories and to thank them for the impact they had on my life. It’s particularly sad to see peers losing battles with disease. It is a reminder that all of us are headed in one direction, so we need to be certain that we are getting the most out of life while we have the opportunity.

Last week we received notification that yet another among us is now gone. Harry Butler did not attend our reunion which was rather in keeping with his general personality, but I often thought of him even though I never saw him again after our graduation day. Harry was in the same honors class in which I was. Since the school chose to send us from class to class as a group we were rather constant companions for four years, but I still didn’t know him as well as some of the others. Nonetheless I was fascinated with Harry because he was one of those individuals who insisted on marching to his own drumbeat. There was always something quite interesting about him. I always believed that he would have an exciting life.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that Harry was a gifted writer with an imagination and wit that was intriguing. As someone who longed to be a journalist or a story teller I watched Harry with great interest because I believed that I would learn much from him. It became sadly apparent to me that I would never be able to equal his talent. He had a way with words that set him apart from those of us who labored away at composing. He was an artist who painted stunning pictures with his sentences and paragraphs. He was able to make us all howl with uncontrollable laughter with his essays and newspaper articles. When he created much of the script for our annual Junior/Senior banquet one year the whole class saw how remarkable he truly was.

Harry went to St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas after graduation form high school and majored in English. I lost track of him except through friends who would encounter him from time to time. I learned that he eventually went to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. I heard rumors that he had actually done well out there and I often found myself scanning film and television credits to see if his name popped up. I really did expect to see him at an awards ceremony one day because I felt that he was that good at his craft. Of course I never saw such a thing but I never really forgot about him. When I traveled to that part of the country I found myself wondering where he lived and how he was doing. I tried to imagine whether or not he had worked with famous people and what scripts he may have created.

I learned from his obituary that he had been sick since January of this year. He had developed an infection of unknown origin that caused an embolism in his brain. This is how he died and it made me so very sad because he possessed a truly remarkable brain. I hoped and prayed that his final days and weeks had not been too painful and that he had been able to read the books that he always enjoyed and listen to the music that enchanted him.

Harry’s father had been a record distributor when we were in high school. Because of that Harry always seemed to have advance knowledge of what new music would be coming our way. He enjoyed regaling us with his insider information and I delighted in being privy to it.. Harry was a character in every sense of the word and his musical insights only added to an air of mystery that always seemed to surround him.

Harry was an exceptional debater, another talent of which I was a tiny bit jealous because Lord knows that I tried so very hard to master that skill. No matter how hard I worked at it I was unable to come close to being as exceptional as he was. Harry was quite simply one of those people who thought on his feet and was able to come up with just the right retorts at just the right moments. He and his debate partner and friend had quite a run as superstars. I often thought that he might become a lawyer but I suspect that such a career was just a bit too tame for him. Harry was out of the ordinary and we all seemed to sense that.

I learned that Harry spent his work life in Los Angeles but returned to Texas after he retired. He chose to settle in Galveston where he loved reading and listening to music. He brought a former ballerina with them and the two of them enjoyed a quiet life near the sea. Even in his final days Harry managed to seem a bit exotic and to have done things on his own terms.

It’s amazing how we never quite forget the people with whom we spend our teenage years. I regret that I never really got to know Harry just a bit better or to tell him how much I admired him. I suspect that I was too much in awe of his remarkable talent in areas in which I so wanted to succeed in my own right. It was as though I saw myself as little more than a hack whenever I compared my abilities with his. Eventually I found the confidence that I had lacked back then and realized that Harry and I had very different styles. I became content to have watched him from afar and to know that maybe just maybe he had found some magic out in Hollywood. At least I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to believe that he lived the kind of life of which he had dreamed so long ago.

Harry’s death signals the passing of another extraordinary member of our class. I feel confident that he is now resting in peace with the angels and cracking them up with his razor sharp sense of humor just as he shared his gift with us so long ago. I remember a time when he proclaimed that the Rolling Stones were the best rock group ever. I argued with him at the time and lost of course, but I always thought of him over the years as that group became my favorite as well. Upon hearing of his death I heard the strains of Satisfaction in my brain and thought of his grin and sarcastic humor that always made us laugh. Thank you, Harry, for some really good times.

Fact or Opinion?

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I usually listen to the radio whenever I’m driving. Rather than being a distraction, it is a habit that keeps me more alert. I tend to prefer talk radio but I’ve grown weary of political tirades, so my go to station of late is NPR. I enjoy the informative programming through which I learn lots of interesting facts. A few evenings ago I was returning home when I happened upon a newscast from BBC that lasted for most of the forty five minutes that it took me to reach my destination. I found myself feeling enchanted by the way in which the reporting was done. Refreshingly it was simply a recitation of factual events with no hint of editorializing. The news stories moved along so quickly that the narrator was able to provide information on literally dozens of world events of which I had little or no prior knowledge. By the time I drove into my garage I felt rather knowledgeable about situations from Turkey to Kenya to Myanmar. I found myself wondering why our own national news programs spend so much time on far less important situations, and why the reporters feel the need to discuss and analyze what is happening rather than just telling us about the events of the day without commentary. There is a certain irony that British broadcasting was so succinct and fact filled while ours now seems intent on creating controversy and inciting emotional responses. Perhaps we have brought this trend on ourselves because at the end of the day news stations are businesses and businesses must make money which means that they need high ratings. In other words we are pandering to the state of broadcast journalism by tuning in and accepting the politicization.

It used to be that news stories were based on “Ws and an H,”  such as who, what, where, when and how. Opinions were the domain of editorial pages and programs. We expected to hear differing points of view on Meet the Press, but the nightly news was more often than not an exercise in providing only information. We thought of remarks intended to change our minds as being propaganda. Now we endure personal attitudes in virtually every version of the news perhaps with the exception of local programming which still tends to follow a fact driven format. It’s enough to drive us all mad and it tends to encourage the airing of controversial stories over those that simply provide needed information, and then allow each individual to add their own personal spin to what they have heard.

I really believe that we need to more carefully delineate fact from opinion. We teach children this important concept from the time that they are very young, but then as adults we fall into the trap of accepting someone else’s thinking as factual. As a society far too many of us are blurring the line between actual news and editorializing. This has created culture wars and idealogical divisions that are unnecessary and has led to a tendency to defend points of view with false narratives and soundbites. In other words we appear to be living in an epoch that actually trivializes the news and our politicians are taking full advantage of the situation.

I have listened to old school radio programming in which Edward R. Murrow used words to describe world situations. His elegant use of the English language was almost poetic, but it also provided vivid mental pictures of what was actually happening, not how he felt about what he was seeing or whether or not such things should have been happening. That was the right way to present the news. In fact it should always be up to the listener or viewer to fill in the blanks of feelings and emotions, not the person who is on the scene giving us an update.

I actually enjoy the kinds of programs that provide an editorial analysis of current events, especially those that strive to provide alternate points of view. They give us an opportunity to think critically as long as they are transparent and willing to give each side of an argument an uninterrupted platform. I don’t mind at all when the guests debate one another, but I prefer for the host to be a moderator, not someone who joins in the fray. All too often these venues devolve into efforts to change minds and to advocate for one side over the other. That’s when I tend to sigh and then tune out. I suppose that I’d prefer just watching something like a Lincoln Douglas debate to feeling as though my intelligence is being insulted by biased reporting.

It’s funny how we teach students how to spot propaganda and then we unwittingly fall for it time and time again. We expect politicians to engage in such shenanigans because it is the nature of the beast, but when those charged with providing us with the news twist information to fit personal agendas I cringe. I believe that most people have enough common sense to decide for themselves how to react to the events that take place each day. None of us need interpretations. When those things happen there should always be full disclosure that what is being reported is a personal opinion rather than a fact.

I doubt that things will change anytime soon, so I will have to find alternative methods of seeking the truth. I would love for our American newscasters to learn a bit from the BBC. I think we would all be the better for getting more information about not only local and national events, but also the goings on around the world. We really do need to know about the problems in Myanmar and the elections in Liberia. We don’t live on an island and what happens in lands far away will indeed have an effect on things here. Ours is a global economy and we share a political symbiosis with everyone. We really are better served when we are informed. While we may be all abuzz about athletes kneeling for the national anthem, we also need to understand what the effects of famine in another part of the world will be on all of us. The truth is that we are spending far too much time being manipulated into arguments with one another when far more pressing issues are facing us. While we are being mesmerized by indignation over an individual’s sexual sins, there are citizens among us who are struggling with real problems that the infighting is preventing us from solving. While the media and the politicians are stirring up our anger and emotions they get away with making us believe that there is always somebody else to blame for the inaction that leaves so many in a state of distress.

We’ve got real work to do and it will only be done when we learn the facts and then decide how to address them. We can no longer afford to be taken in by propaganda masquerading as truth. Perhaps its time to quit rewarding the news programming that has so lost its way by providing them with the ratings they so need. If we were to turn them off and then boost the viewership of those who follow the old school rules of reporting without all of the chattering and blathering, then the spin might end. Until we do this we will be subject to the fighting that is slowly but surely tearing us apart and preventing us from accomplishing anything.  I don’t know about you, but I for one have grown weary of being manipulated.

Words As Weapons

words-are-weapons“The tongue has no bones but is strong enough to break a heart. So be careful with your words.”

How often do we hear of words “killing” someone’s soul? Jesus tells us that gossip is like letting a bag of feathers loose in the wind. No matter how hard we try we are never able to get them all back. What we say has repercussions that are sometimes irretrievable. We know this and yet time and again cruel sentences leave our lips or end up floating in the ether on Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes this happens in a moment of anger but other moments are the result our intent to brutally harm someone with our most ugly thoughts. We say that sticks and stones can break our bones and words can never hurt us, but we know that this really isn’t true.

Sadly we read again and again of young people who are so harassed by their peers that they are driven to killing themselves. I suspect that none of the individuals who poke at someone and make them feel weak actually intend for harm to happen but all too often it does. I recently watched a program about a young woman who was recently found guilty of manslaughter for taunting a depressed friend into committing suicide. Texts on his phone showed that he was reluctant to take his own life, but eventually went through with it at the urging of this young lady who assured him that his family might grieve briefly, but would quickly get over their loss. When he admitted to her that he was scared to follow through on his plan she insinuated that he needed to man up. Eventually he did the deed. The jury felt that without the woman was complicit in his death because he was trying to back out, and she pushed him to follow through on what he had started.

While this is an extreme example of how words have the power of being lethal there are so many examples of youngsters whose confidence is ravaged by the horrific comments of their peers. It’s all well and good to teach our children how to ignore such behaviors, but we also must implore them never to be part of such destructive actions. We’ve all witnessed individuals who become the butt of jokes and sometimes we do so little to help them. It’s very difficult to stand up to kids who are popular or powerful, and yet we need to show our kids how to draw upon the courage to always do the right thing. We cannot sit back and watch the suffering of another even if it means losing our own place in the pecking order. Our children need to understand that they will ultimately be much happier if their own character is strong and just.

Most of the time none of us become involved in such extreme examples of using words as weapons, but we do sometimes say things to the people with whom we are the closest in the heat of a moment. We know their weaknesses and we charge ahead ready to hurt them with a little sting. We have to be very careful in such situations because once our barbs have landed we can’t really take them back. We would all do well to think before we speak and to consider the damage that our words may cause.

We seem to believe that we have a certain level of anonymity whenever we post comments on social media. We believe that out of the millions of words being slung around each moment there is little reason to think that ours will be noticed, but time and again people have lost jobs, tested relationships and angered friends over a snarky response, when the truth is that the only result that is likely to happen in such instances is to upset someone. We rarely change anyone’s opinion with our insulting remarks, so why would we take the risk of speaking out and possibly hurting feelings?  I have literally cringed over the words that I have heard people express or seen them write.

We have almost unlimited freedom of expression in this country, but it is up to each of us to know when saying certain things goes beyond the pale. A joke about assassinating the president isn’t funny. Racist comments about those who are different from ourselves have no place in the public forum. While we cannot and should not restrict speech, it is up to each of us to monitor our own utterances and to consider the effects of what we say. Perhaps it is time to instruct our young in such things as well.

Words can be as sharp as any sword. They can mortally wound a soul. We really do need to watch what we say. Gossiping, lying, bullying, threatening, hurting should all be anathema to us. We would not point a gun at another human being, so why do we so blithely allow our words to sting? Whether we shout them or whisper them or write them down they should always be intended for the betterment of the people that we encounter, but never to tear them down.