How a Stranger Got me to Re-Post Paper Sam & the Power of Words

The start to my Wednesday has not been ideal. I left an unfinished cup of coffee (a delicious cup, mind you) on my counter, I rushed to the bus, my son wasn’t feeling well…but those are minor. When I got to the subway I walked toward the end of the platform, the perfect place for me to hop off and head straight for the exit at the Park Street stop. The platform wasn’t crowded and at this point most who were idly standing by were men.

And then out of nowhere came words directed solely at me. loud and surly: “Skank” “Bitch”. My eyes followed the sound of the words and a man, scruffy and unshaved, looked directly at me, his lips curling in complete hate. He repeated the words as I walked quickly away, heart pounding.

The train could not come fast enough. He was a stranger yet these vitriolic words flew out of his mouth directed at me. 

But here’s what’s startling – while I knew the minute I heard the words that he was seriously mentally ill, that while the words were directed at me, they weren’t about me – those words stayed with me. They sank in and I wanted to cry. I know that I’m neither of those words. They don’t apply to me, or any other woman – but they still worked their way into my tired heart. And so I decided to re-post a piece I did a year ago called “Paper Sam and the Power of Words”. 

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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.

Paper Sam Before Insults

“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.

Paper Sam – Restored with scars

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. 

17 thoughts on “How a Stranger Got me to Re-Post Paper Sam & the Power of Words

  1. Few years ago, I was an angry person, always feel rejected and useless. Then one day, my pastor said to me, “I believe in you and God can use you”. That words transformed my life and it breathes life and hope into me. Power of words !!

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  2. Amazing how words CAN cause pain, isn’t it? The illustration of Paper Sam leaves me hopeful – yet a little saddened, still, to realize that some things we say simply cannot be undone. I hope I get better at choosing my words wisely….

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  3. I had a VERY similar experience on an L platform about 5 months ago. Someone with a mental illness asked me for change, and I searched in my purse but didn’t have any change… and then she went OFF… loud, vulgar language. It shook me (literally, I was shaking) for hours. What a miserable, discombobulating experience! And it made others standing nearby equally miserable. No one knew how to fix it or how to help.

    And it makes me wonder what resources the city has for persons such as this…?

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    1. Yes that’s it isn’t it?! It affected everyone – I kept on thinking about the men around and wondered if it got worse if anyone would come to my aid. And you’re right – resources around mental illness are constantly being cut with little to stand in the gap. And it takes really specialized services which cost money. Thanks Donna.

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  4. I am an extremely confident person. I know that I am loved by God no matter how much I mess up. I know that He has given me gifts that can make a difference in this world. I know that when people assume that I am weak because I am a woman or immoral because I am from America that they are just plain wrong and their false impressions don’t affect me, (at least not too much). Why am I like this? I think it is primarily because I have been showered with affirmation from the day I was born from loving parents, teachers and others in my life. I wasn’t told that I was perfect, but that I was loved, that God made me for a purpose and that I was really good at doing XYZ. I pray that I will speak this kind of affirmation into the hearts of my children.

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    1. Clearly this troubled man didn’t have the graces you’ve been given. He’s been wounded and so he wounds. You’re right Anne, we are products of our early environments, we are shaped. This truth allows us to extend mercy to others knowing or guessing their stories. But no matter how confident you are there are times the unkindnesses of others penetrate and hurt.

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    2. I love the description of the affirmation you received. I too received much affirmation – but even with that I have to echo Robynn’s comment “ut no matter how confident you are there are times the unkindnesses of others penetrate and hurt.” Being hurled insults anonymously on a subway platform, and insults that have sexual undertones, did shake me, did hurt. Thankfully, because I’ve had so many people to smooth out my own Paper Sam, the wounds made me think and pray as opposed to collapse in tears.

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      1. I think when you are given a solid foundation that attacks like this affect one emotionally, (I would be freaked out too if I was cussed out by a stranger), but not ones’ sense of self. I know that what is being said is a lie. I know that I am not those horrible things I am being called. It bothers me, but it doesn’t ultimately change me. I am reminded of a story I heard about a girl whose brother started abusing her when she was 12 and then passed her around to his friends. They constantly told her she was a whore and then forced to act like one. She figured, “Well, I guess it is true, so I might as well start acting like one”, and then she started to choose an immoral and desperate lifestyle at age 12. Since she had no one to speak truth and love into her life, these words determined the course of her life until Jesus rescued her. We may be shaken by unkind words, but if we know the truth about ourselves from God’s perspective, it does not need to destroy us.

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  5. I am still editing my new post but took a break to read yours as the ping alerted me to a new mail.
    Oh my dear, I am so sorry for what you went through. I know how much it can hurt to hear something awful said to one. That is the reason why i make it a point to meet the eyes of strangers and smile at them and give a compliment whenever i can. it sends goodwill flying around and leaves me feeling all warm and good inside.
    We never think how hurt or unhappy a person must be who hurts others. We think of the hurt they caused us and it is so hard to think beyond that. God put you in that position, in that moment when that poor man was perhaps pushed to the brink by the demons within him, which we will never know about, to hurl those expletives at you. Certainly God did not mean to hurt you. He wanted you to rise above, to see pain in the eyes of one who had hurt you and to feel sympathy for him. What kind of life he must lead, what kind of misery he must be suffering from. It is also possible that God wanted you to do something about it like posting this which might reach the heart and minds of others and start a chain reaction of goodness.
    Love you.

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    1. Pari – your compassion must delight the heart of God. Thank you for these words. And it’s true – even recognizing they were not about me was a grace. I did find myself staying to the back end of the platform heart pounding hoping he wasn’t going to do something rash like try and push me onto the tracks of the oncoming train…..

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