A couple of Christmases ago, when staying with family I managed a rare trip out to have coffee with a friend. The tightly packed tables in the narrow coffee shop meant the only wheelchair-accessible table was just inside the door, right next to the counter, where customers had to squeeze past to enter or leave.
The only customers between us and the entrance were a couple of yummy-mummies on a sofa in the window with their two young children. They were so engrossed in their conversation they didn’t notice the little boy heading straight towards the shiny wheel on my chair.
He was only about eighteen months old – walking but not properly talking – and the wheel was almost as big as he was. He was so enamoured he didn’t seem to notice the wheel was attached to a chair or that the chair contained a person. Not wanting to startle him I checked the brakes to make sure the chair couldn’t roll and trap his fingers, then went back to my coffee.
He played there quite happily for several minutes, gripping the rims of the wheel in his little fists and trying unsuccessfully to turn it. He wasn’t in any danger and he wasn’t bothering us so I left him to it. Finally noticing his absence, his mum looked up. Horrified to discover him playing with a stranger’s wheelchair she frantically hissed at her son to come away but he was too mesmerised to hear her. I tried to tell her it was okay, we really didn’t mind, but she wouldn’t meet my eye or even acknowledge that I’d spoken.
The most logical step would have been to come and fetch him but that would have meant apologising for disturbing us, and whether her reluctance was because of the wheelchair or simply embarrassment, she opted not to. Instead, she did what mothers everywhere do when their toddler is heading with hands outstretched, towards the nearest festering bin or steaming pile of dog-muck: she pointed at the offending object (in this case my chair) and barked the words Dirty! Don’t touch!
After several repetitions she finally noticed the outraged glares of nearby customers and the nervous dithering of staff behind the counter as they wondered at what point in such a scenario they were contractually required to intervene. It was possible to pinpoint the exact moment when her bemusement gave way to horror as she realised that no one else present could actually see her child over the arm of my wheelchair. All the onlookers had witnessed was a demented women leap inexplicably out of her chair to hurl unprovoked abuse at a poor disabled woman.
Knowing this wasn’t the case I gave a wry shrug and a smile to acknowledge that the mistake was genuine and hadn’t caused offence, but as she grabbed her child and walked wordlessly away, the flustered mum still wouldn’t meet my eye. Her mortified friend was already preparing to make a hasty exit and I felt bad they’d felt obliged to leave their meals virtually untouched to escape accusatory stares. I don’t believe for one moment that she intended to offend; her words were neither addressed to me, nor about me, but she spoke without thinking how her words might sound to others.
It’s so easy to do isn’t it? I’m sure at times we’ve all caused offence through careless words or thoughtless actions that were never intended to hurt.
I made a similar faux pas recently when one of my carers announced she was expecting her first child. I should have responded by congratulating her on her wonderful news, but she was the sixth person in a month to announce they were pregnant and the third carer that week to say they were leaving, so rather than ‘congratulations’ the first words to impulsively exit my mouth were ‘not you as well’.
Who’d have thought the phrase ‘not you as well’ is never an acceptable response to news of a pregnancy no matter how many people have made similar announcements in close succession? Thankfully she was gracious enough to see the funny side but she could so easily have taken it differently.
The bible reminds us countless times to think carefully before we speak because wise words have the power to heal but reckless words can pierce like a sword and lead to our downfall (Proverbs 12:18; 13:3). If you’re anything like me, it doesn’t matter how many encouraging words someone speaks to you, the negative ones stick in your mind for longer.
Often we don’t even realise that our words are hurtful. I expect we all have memories of words that still hurt us long after the speakers themselves have forgotten. If my own rash words have ever offended you then I’m sorry; I promise to try and engage my brain first in future.
But I tell you that men will have to give account … for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Matthew 12:36-37 (NIV)
Over to you:
Have you ever put your foot in it by speaking without thinking?
If you have any stories I’d love to hear them.