More Than Words

Do you remember the old E. F. Hutton commercials?

The premise was of course that “when E. F. Hutton talks, people listen”.

We have known for centuries that words can influence, motivate, demean, inspire and otherwise cause communications between people to take on all kinds of meanings. Words can elevate issues to the highest levels, and words can shut down meaningful intercourse between countries, leading to war.

We have known many famous people who use words to get their messages across.

Winston Churchill, in Great Britain’s darkest hour, was to have famously said, “Never, never, never give in.”

Dwight Eisenhower said, “I have only one yardstick by which I test every major problem — and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?”

Pope John Paul II said, “The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being.”

That last quote leads me to write about one of the issues and stories of our time.

Yesterday, Michelle Carter of was found guilty in a Massachusetts courtroom of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her friend Conrad Roy III. She is to be sentenced on August 3rd, and she faces up to twenty years in prison. She is twenty years old.

At issue in this case was whether or not words, simple words, can cause the death of another person.

You by now know the story. Roy was a shy, anxious boy, a troubled teenager who had a mostly technological relationship with Carter from 2012 to 2014. Carter had her own baggage and demons, and these seemingly clouded her good judgment when it came to how she responded to her friend’s anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. At first, Carter encouraged Roy to get help for his troubles, but in the two weeks before he killed himself on July 12, 2014, she seemed to abruptly shift gears, telling him repeatedly that he should simply go ahead and commit suicide.

The guilty verdict did not seem to hinge on the many text messages between the two, no matter how inappropriate or negative they were. In the end, the judge focused on the phone call that took place between the two as Roy was sitting in his truck, which was rapidly filling with carbon monoxide. He seems to have changed his mind about killing himself at the last minute, as those who struggle with these thoughts often do, and got out of the truck. He told his friend that he was scared.

Instead of telling him that he did not have to complete the act, or that he should call someone for help, or instead of calling someone herself, she simply told him to get back in.

She knew, after two years of communication with him, about his ambivalence, his fears, his worries, but she disregarded all of that.

She told him to get back in.

She knew that he would most likely die, that he had said that he wanted to die, and she encouraged him, by phone, to stay in the environment that eventually killed him.

This was a landmark case, in that most of the time, someone who is contemplating suicide or carries out the act has thought about it, maybe even planned it out as Mr. Roy had. It is considered to be an act of free will, a person deciding that they no longer want to live and taking steps to insure that their plans to kill themselves come to fruition. In this case, Carter knew that by telling her friend to get back in the truck that he would likely die, but she did nothing to stop that eventuality. She did not tell him to get out, she did not call his family, she did not call the police and she, by her direct words to this unfortunate young man, directly contributed to his death.

The prosecution, and the presiding judge in the case, evidently felt quite strongly that her physical absence from the scene of Mr. Roy’s death was immaterial.

Katie Rayburn, an assistant district attorney, said, “She was in his ear, she was in his mind, she was on the phone, and she was telling him to get back in the car even though she knew he was going to die.”

Such a sad case involving two very troubled teenagers whose very investment in each other turned sour and caused the death of one and the possible incarceration of the other.

When people speak, especially those who we admire, respect, love or try to emulate, we listen. We may listen superficially, we may dwell for a time on what they say, or we may obsess about it.

We may act on what we hear.

Our actions may have consequences.

Whether coming from a pope, a statesman, a president of the United States, or a friend who is as troubled as we are,

words matter.

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