From all reports, Juergen Peters was a bright, sweet young man. He was born in Kassel, Germany shortly after Word War 2, the fabled city where the Brothers Grimm had lived and collected their many tales. Kassel was no magic kingdom post-war, however, as it had been utterly destroyed.
So together, Peters and Kassel, entered the world: The child born and the city remade. And both, it seemed, even with their new shine, suffered from great bombed-out craters. Juergen Peters was often troubled, depressed, and felt like he had a massive hole in his heart.
After an intense dispute at work one day he turned unusually dark, even for him. He walked off his job and climbed to the top of the city of Kassel’s water tower – more than ten stories high – with every intention of jumping to his death. As authorities rushed to the scene, a crowd of onlookers gathered to witness the event.
At some point Juergen, thankfully, was convinced by a negotiator to change course. He carefully began climbing down the narrow iron ladder to the ground. The crowd, deprived of a sensational conclusion, did not take its disappointment lying down. Someone yelled out to the boy, “Jump, you coward, jump!”
This led to a kind of mob scene. As Peters descended the tower more and more spectators began to jeer and deride him. He hesitated, looked down at the crowd, and then climbed back up. When he reached the top again, he moved out on the ledge and flung himself off. He was only nineteen years old.
If Juergen Peters had made it safely to the ground that day, I don’t know if he would have received the mental health intervention he so badly needed. But I do know this: The cause of death may have read “suicide,” but those in the crowd could have been detained as accomplices to the crime.
This is a tragic, dramatic story, but a necessary one. It was the great Flannery O’Connor who concluded that to get people’s attention you have “to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” We need to be shocked and startled, because our verbiage is as deadly today as it was below that water tower in Kassel, Germany.
We are destroying one another with our words as hateful, spiteful rhetoric spills out in all corners of society. Road rage. Bullying at school. Toxic hate speech. Political opponents locked in verbal assault. Hordes of tanked-up adults coming to blows at a Little League game. Online “comments” that are nothing but anonymous, poisonous vitriol lobbed like grenades into a crowd. The level of hostility and lack of civility in our country is nothing but destructive.
Ancient wisdom recognizes and identifies the root of this problem: “A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire,” the Jewish sage wrote. Going further he said, “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.”
All of us have this potential – to strike out with hellish words that act like kindling for a raging fire. We strike at our spouse and children. At the other drivers on the highway. At perfect strangers. At those already suffering from measureless internal torment. At our rivals we find so easy to demonize.
The children’s rhyme we all learned before kindergarten is wrong: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s a boldface lie. Words hurt. Words can lodge so deep in the memory that decades of living cannot erase the words or the pain they generate. Words can crush, destroy, and yes, even kill. But they are not just killing others. We are burning our whole world to the ground. May God give us the grace to keep our mouths shut.