I was moved to tears last night as I watched The Real Marigold Hotel on BBC 1. For those of you who haven’t seen it, inspired by the movie of the same name, a group of celebrities travel to India to see if retirement would be more rewarding there than in the UK. It’s funny, heartwarming, moving, and, at times, tear-jerking.
One such moment came last night as Lionel Blair spoke about his treatment for prostate cancer which, whilst leaving him cancer free, had nevertheless left him with a distended stomach. The revelation came as he and former snooker World Champion Dennis Taylor attended a youth football training session. The football trainer was 87-years-old, although he looked and acted as if he were in his sixties. He invited Dennis and Lionel to have a go at the training, at which point Lionel said that he’d love to but he “had a bad back”. The trainer, oblivious to Lionel’s health issues, responded with “You don’t have a bad back, you have a big tummy!”
Later on at dinner, Lionel Blair spoke passionately about the effect the words had had on him. Despite the protestations of the rest of the group saying that the trainer had only been joking, Lionel said, “He may have been only joking, but it’s not a joke to me. I’ve always been slim and now I have this tummy. And when someone mentions it, it hurts!” As he spoke, his eyes became rheumy and the whole group fell silent.
The incident made me think of how we all say things, many times off the cuff and with no malice aforethought, that can cut others to the quick. We have no knowledge of their story or their journey, what they have been through, or what it took for them to make it to this point in one piece, and yet we unthinkingly cast aspersions upon them. We wound them, and no matter how many times we say sorry, or that we didn’t know, or we didn’t mean to, it doesn’t make the slur any less painful.
This is especially so when the issue of body size or weight is a at hand. A couple of weeks ago, my niece, who is utterly gorgeous, overweight, a fantastic friend and a fabulous mum to her two girls, was coming back from the local shop at night. As she rounded the corner, a cyclist, with no lights on his bike, almost ran into her. She made a gesture as if to say “What are you doing?” and he responded with “What’s your problem?”
“You have no lights! That’s my problem!” she said. At this point, the cyclist embarked on a torrent of abuse ending with “I don’t need lights anyway to see someone the size of you!”
Now, this guy knows nothing about my niece. He doesn’t know that she has struggled with anxiety and depression since the breakdown of her marriage, and that that led her into a cycle of comfort eating and crying herself to sleep with feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness. He doesn’t know that she managed to pull herself out of that pit, reexamine her relationship with food, start eating healthily, go to the gym, start body combat lessons, and generally do so well that her trainer told her she’s a star pupil. Most of all though, he didn’t know that she has lost over a stone (14 pounds for my US friends) and that the trip to the shop that night was to get herself her first foodie treat for two months.
Fortunately, my niece is a much stronger person these days, otherwise such a comment would have crushed her. Still, no matter how much I told her that the guy on the bike was just an idiot and that anyone would have gotten the abuse, she still said, “I know all that. So why does it make me want to cry?”
“Because it’s hurtful, and these feelings run deep,” I replied, “He’s a little shit that said the first thing that made sense to him in relation to being able to see someone. The fact that he should have had lights on his bike so you could see HIM, is neither here nor there. To you, it was an inherently personal comment that basically sticks an ice pick in a pressure point.”
Words can be weapons. Quite fitting then that the word “words” is an anagram of “sword”.
We are all human, and no matter how much we tell ourselves that we won’t say a harsh word to anyone anymore, or that we’ll think twice before we speak, the fact of the matter is that there will always be an occasion when that ideal goes out of the window and we react instinctively, without even thinking. However, if we engaged with our empathetic side, gave rise to the thoughts and feelings we had when someone said something which hurt us, perhaps we would be that little bit less willing to inflict that on someone else.