The trainer pulled out a plain white piece of paper. On the paper was a simple drawing of a face: two dot eyes and a single line upturned to symbolize a smile.
“This is Sam” he said. The activity was simple. Beginning at the front of the room each person was to go back in time to the days of playgrounds and small friends. We would pass around the picture of “Paper Sam” and say something that was said to us in childhood that hurt. Before passing on the innocent piece of paper that had become Sam we were to crumple it up.
So the words and the subsequent crumpling began:
“You’re weak!” Crumple.
“You’re ugly!” Crumple
“You’re so fat!” Crumple
“You have no dad!” Crumple
“You stutter!” Crumple
After 20 insults, Paper Sam was a crumpled mess. And then the activity was reversed. Paper Sam was sent around the room again, only this time we were to take Sam and repeat words that someone had said to us in our adult life that demonstrated they believed in us. After delivering those words we were to take crumpled, almost destroyed Paper Sam and smooth him out, try to remove some of the impact and take away those wrinkles.
The contrast couldn’t have been more profound:
“You can do this!”
“You are incredibly capable!”
“You are a role model for others”
“You are a real leader.”
“I encourage you to go back to school – you are so smart.”
“You are gifted with people.”
“Your family must be so proud.”
20 phrases later Paper Sam was smoother but still bore some residual scars. There was no way that all that crumpling could be undone, it was too much and too prolonged
We all know the power of words, but sometimes we are given a new way of looking at that power. Watching Paper Sam crumpled time upon time as memories of words came flooding out was poignant and powerful. We had personalized Sam – he was us and each time he took a beating we took a beating. Equally powerful were the attempts to smooth the crinkles and restore Paper Sam to his former self through words of affirmation and acts of restoration. That too was us.
While words of insult tear down, words of affirmation restore. While some hands crumple and crush, others gently smooth. While sin tears down, grace and redemption restore.
Where have you seen the power of words in your life for good or for ill? Tell your story in the comment section.
11 thoughts on “Paper Sam and the Power of Words”
Powerful exercise. May I re post on my face book page, please? Attributing to you of course
I would be honored to have you post- thank you. And it was tremendously powerful…
Marilyn Gardner Sent from my iPhone
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but WORDS will never hurt me.” I’ve heard this all my life. Who said this? What is the meaning? Did he/she not know the power of words, both to hurt and to heal?
I never understood that either Bettie – yet to this day it’s used!! Whoever thought it up should answer to this!
i am a paper sam. i was crumpled time and time again. no dad. abusive stepdad. powerless mother. inferiority disorder in school. words i heard many that crumpled and crumpled me.
But restoration was also ongoing. mom tried her best with her gentle words and reassurance. she always was there for me, with me (even if silent), i felt her presence and love. and my grandmother was there for me. i only saw adoration in her eyes for me. i am her first grand daughter – a lot more she had later. but i always felt i was special.
and then i have my education and all the words of praise that i receive from kindly teachers who sort of understoond my silence.
And later in life, words of appreciation from wonderful colleagues just gives me tha balance i need.
After a tragedy with loosing a child i was feeling more like the badly crumpled sam. It was a low time for me – it was luck that i came across a group of people who helped me get the bitterness out. It was a class somehow similar to what you described.
They helped smoothen out the paper sam in me … and to the most part I am glad for what I went through.
Through my life’s experience I have learned compassion. How everyone needs it … How we should never abuse, never make fun of others.
Thanks Marilyn for the wonderful work you are doing :)
Amira — I read your story 3 times. This is such a strong picture of hurt and restoration. And there is so much more, I know, between the words that would never fit in a comment. Thank you for sharing this. It’s a gift.
Powerful exercise!!! Powerful lesson in being kind with words, to the best of my ability at all times. With awareness of the impact of my words, I can also improve, with effort, my impact on my portion of the world in a positive manner!
Dave – thanks for the comment. It was a tremendously powerful exercise. Would be interesting to change up the exercise and think about those things that participants have said that caused the crumple on the playground.