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.
3 thoughts on “Hush Your Mouth”
Amen, amen, amen! It is a sin & we are ALL guilty
Well said Ronnie!!
This article definitely rings true in my experience. My brother who suffered from schizophrenia for over 25 years finally succumbed to his illness and died by his own hand. His own doctor refused to make time to see him right before he died, a woman he was caddying for scolded him for not being able to add her score correctly on a golf card and he was also worried about a bill he received from the Federal government for over-payment of disability benefits. No matter what we as his family told him he heard those other voices of negativity and degradation and found he could deal with the pains of life no longer. But he was a man of deep faith. He attended mass daily. He was a true Christian in every sense of the word. He never complained or tried to make anyone feel sorry for his plight in life. He was always there to help anyone in need and never refused a favor. Christ-like in all he did. His death crystalized the beauty of our Lord to me and deepened my faith that the God truly loves even when everyone else rejects someone. My brother wrote the most beautiful suicide note telling those he loved that he loved them and blaming no one for his plight. I know I’m repeating myself but his goodness bears repeating as does the Goodness, love and light God shines on us everyday. The two greatest commandments are Love God with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul and Love your neighbor as yourself. My brother did that in spades and his goodness illuminated God’s goodness for me. I intend to witness as a Catholic Christian to all I meet. Allelujah, Allelujah, Allelujah!