Our visceral responses to words can be quite instructive. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a familiar childhood chant. They often do hurt, of course, which is why we have concocted this counter-spell.

This returns us to Song Xing’s “To be insulted is not a disgrace” (1:7; 33; p 121)—his own philosophical counter-spell. If we can achieve an unflappable self-esteem, words cannot hurt us. Zhuangzi, as we have seen, suggests we not even depend on that, but rather abandon our sense of a fixed and vulnerable self altogether.

Words are thus quite useful even—especially—in their potentially negative impacts. An insult is something upon which to soar, or to at least make the attempt. It’s all good training.

The propensity for an exchange of words to devolve into conflict is another fine teaching moment. “They begin nicely enough, but in the end it gets ugly. . . . Words are like wind and waves . . .” (4:15) As every sailor knows, wind means waves, and it’s the waves that are the scary and harmful bit. Similarly, there is nothing like the onset of an argument to demonstrate our continued dependence on self-rightness and our belief in the truth of our opinions.

We can be thankful, therefore, for the downside of words as well as the upside. If we want a teacher, there is nothing better than our own everyday silliness.

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