A venerable legal maxim states “Words alone never justify violence.” Forty years ago their absence guaranteed it.
In my first month of law practice a father and his teenage son came to see me. The boy had been sued for divorce. Our meeting was brief and the father spoke for them both.
A week later, I learned from the wife’s lawyer that his client would not allow mine unsupervised visits with their infant son. When I called my young client with the news, he took it calmly.
A few hours later on the 10 o’clock news I heard, “A teenage father with a history of mental problems has killed his wife and her mother with a butcher knife. He was found cradling his baby.” He was my client. He had gotten his unsupervised visit.
I was angry and embarrassed. No one told me about his mental problems. Should I have asked? My words were the real instrument of death, I thought. They had loosed the animal, lit the fuse, snuffed out the lives.
It was not until years later that the truth became clear to me. What killed the victims was not my phone call, or even the knife of my deranged client. It was the words not spoken by his father. The admission he could not make, that his son was mentally ill.
I’ve forgiven myself, as well as the silent father, for I’ve since made the same mistake of unspoken words. Failing to tell my family how much I loved them when they needed it the most was, at the time, an oversight. But for them, and now me, a deeper wound.
I’ve learned the power of words unsaid. So now to a struggling runner, or a despondent soul in an elevator, I give encouragement. After all, sometimes words alone can make all the difference.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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