CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My column last Sunday about basic truths included the simple but apt, "One cruel remark can wound someone for life." Bill Varian sent an e-mail saying he agreed with that particular truth, remarking, "It's hard not to do this on occasion, isn't it? Even if you don't want to."
My initial reaction, upon reading Bill's e-mail, was to quickly review as many of my recent regrettable remarks as I could remember to determine if any had been inadvertently directed at Bill. Once I felt reasonably safe, I wrote him that I completely agreed.
Having spent time on each side of regrettable remarks, I'm intimately familiar with both the taste of foot, and the lasting sting words can leave.
When I was in the sixth grade, a teacher had each student sing a few lines -- one at a time, in front of everyone else -- so she could separate the altos from the baritones from the tenors. When my turn finally came, I nervously squeaked out my bit, as best as I could. The teacher guided me gently by the shoulders over to the smallest group of students.
"Honey," she said in her impossible-not-to-hear teacher's voice. "There's nothing wrong with just mouthing the words."
It was the last time I ever sang in front of anyone, except those who wore diapers or fur. (Yes, I sing to my animals. It's called Testing the Theory of Unconditional Love.)
In a similar vein, a relative's evaluation of my dance skills has kept me from dancing in public again. It didn't matter that for years prior to her remark, I'd already joked about Elaine Benes, on "Seinfeld," stealing my moves. Having someone else make the joke gave credence to the insecurity I already held, and stopped me from dancing.
It's interesting how much power negative comments can have on us, especially when those comments are delivered by someone whose opinion we value.
When a friend's 10-year-old daughter asked if she could walk around in a Hallmark store by herself, my friend said OK. A few seconds later, when her 6-year-old son asked the same, she told him he couldn't because he was too clumsy, that he'd break something.
Her son really wasn't outrageously clumsy -- just your typically distracted and rambunctious 6-year-old boy -- and she's not usually the type to make such an offhand declaration. The moment quickly passed, and she thought no more about it.