Stings and Arrows

This has been the Summer of the Wasp. All told, over the course of the past few weeks I’ve been stung no fewer than six times – the last four occurring within the space of just a few seconds.

As a child, I used to visit a doctor every other week to have him administer an allergy shot. He would jolly me along, promising to combine all the necessary drugs into a single injection. “All together, stormy weather,” he’d rumble as I bared my arm for the onslaught. That last wasp attack, on my back porch, felt like pretty stormy weather to me. I can feel its effects still…

Each summer, we discover a hive of wasps or hornets in some ingenious corner, usually well-hidden in an alcove, eave or cozy niche. Each time, my husband duly brings out the killer spray and rids us of the menace for another season. Though our porch has a roof, it’s also partially open to the elements. This year, I’d noticed one or two of the winged creatures whizzing around the porch now and then, though never close enough to disturb me… Until the day I reached for something on a set of plastic shelves we keep there – and felt as if someone had stabbed my hand with a nasty little knife.

I never saw him coming.

After the requisite shriek and dash indoors, we researched the best way to treat the sting. The pain lasted an hour or two, the swelling a day or two, and the itching a little longer than that. So when I got stung again – on the same porch, near those same shelves – a couple of weeks later, I knew exactly what to do. This second attack became an interesting anecdote, as in “Guess what? I got stung twice in the same summer!”

And then came last Thursday. An ordinary day – until I stepped out onto that treacherous porch to get something from the same shelf. OW! The now-familiar knifelike pain made me yelp and wave my arms to shake off the attacker. This time, the wasp was very much in evidence, persistently hovering around me, apparently maddened by my vigorous evasive motion. Big mistake. When I shook it off my right arm, it merely switched venues, following up its first sting on that arm with another three on my left. By the time I made it safely indoors, I felt as if I’d been in a war!

The after-effects of this attack were much more painful than either of the other two, probably because three of the stings were clustered in close proximity to each other. Twenty-four hours later, as I sat at the Friday-night seudah, my arm ached almost unbearably. It had turned red, hot and swollen. Even now, four days later, the itch is still there, a lingering battle scar.

Naturally, given the way my mind works, I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m supposed to learn from all of this. Apart, that is, for the wisdom of being alert to danger and learning from my mistakes. I should have noticed the increased number of wasp sightings on my porch. I should have realized that the two previous stings had occurred near the plastic shelves. It wasn’t until my husband thought of using a broomstick to tilt the shelves away from the wall that we finally saw it: a tidy little hive tucked into a corner of the underside of the very shelf I’d been reaching for. No wonder those wasps went crazy. I’d stepped into their turf. To their tiny minds, I was threatening their home.

I’ll give those militant insects this much credit: they didn’t bother me until I inadvertently bothered them. But wasps are not like bumblebees. Though both can deliver painful stings, a bee is slower to lash back at a perceived enemy. Also, a bee delivers one heroic blow for life and liberty – and then dies. Wasps, on the other hand, are aggressive predators that can sting multiple times. Not someone whose bad side you want to be on.

Trying to figure out what all this reminded me of, I kept coming back to the word “sting.” There are lots of ways to sting a person. Mostly, we do it without tongues.

We all know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a stinging remark. A caustic comment can hurt every bit as much as a hornet’s built-in sword. Often, like the attacks on my porch, you don’t see the blow coming until it lands. The verbal arrow comes flying out of nowhere, unerringly reaching its mark.

Some people are very good with one-liners. Give them a situation where an individual is perceived as weak, or foolish, or in any way less than his best, and these jokesters will provide the equivalent of a knife-twist to the heart. These nasty lines can be administered in anger and in private. Mostly, though, they’re delivered with cynical humor and in front of an appreciative audience. Some folks will do anything for a laugh.

Nowadays our world, it seems, is all about entertainment. Anything goes, as long as it’s funny. Never mind that put-down humor can hurt like a wasp’s sting, remain red and swollen for days afterward and hang around like a miserable itch for a long time to come. Put-down humor is not really entertainment. It’s much closer to aggression. It’s the sound of the audience’s laughter that sometimes muddies the water and makes that fact unclear.

Then again, the goal is not always to entertain. Sometimes negative feelings are a factor. Maybe you feel that a certain person threatens your peace of mind. Perhaps, to you, he or she represents danger. And maybe you believe this gives you the right to say whatever you want in defense of that which is precious to you. But maybe you’d be wrong. Hurt, resentment or fury may whirl through our minds and hearts like a swarm of yellow jackets, but that does not grant us permission to let loose and sting.

Our words have the power to make beautiful connections, but they also carry a terrifying ability to destroy and demolish. Most of us, boruch Hashem, do not walk around brandishing physical weapons, but all of us are in constant possession of the most lethal weapon of all. A weapon which, once unsheathed, can wreak terrible havoc. Let’s not wait for the pain of a hornet’s sting to remind us to hold our aggressive impulses in check. There are ways to cope with difficult people, and the feelings they engender, which does not include stabbing them with a figurative knife.

I could have avoided the pain of multiple stings by being alert to the presence of those wasps, and careful about putting myself in harm’s way. We can do the same with the many of the potentially painful situations we encounter in life. We can learn to avoid people with razor-sharp tongues and a tendency to use them to slash at our self-esteem. We can take a cautious look around before embarking on relationships that have the potential to turn toxic. We can protect ourselves from the double hazard of being hurt, and of lashing back to hurt others in our turn.

And we can do our very best to resist the siren call of those cutting one-liners. We can hold ourselves back from saying them – no matter how funny they are, and how much laughter they’re bound to engender. Because, when you get right down to it, it’s far better to suffer a little psychic pain from the wasps around us than to be the one to deliver the sting.