in·sen·si·tive: (adj) lacking feeling or tact
A close friend of mine lost her mother a year and a half ago. Her family has endured a lot of stares, a lot of "nebbach" comments, but nothing compared to the wedding invitation dropped in their mailbox recently. It was addressed to Mr. ggggggg Joe Shmoe.
Just like that. A black marker crossing out the "and Mrs." Baruch Hashem, my friend was able to laugh, as was her father. It wasn't funny, though. It was sad. I am sure that the baalei simcha did not intend to hurt my friend's family at all. This wasn't an act of cruelty or spite, rather it was pure insensitivity. (I even created a possible "dan lekaf zechus" scenario in my mind where the baalei simcha actually spotted the envelope sporting "Mr. and Mrs. Joe Shmoe" and intended to place it in the "re-do" pile, crossing out the Mrs. so as to remember what the problem was, but the envelope somehow ended up in the "send" pile. But it didn't carry much weight.)
Okay, so nobody is perfect. I occasionally find myself craning to see the inhabitant of a wheelchair, and I clearly know the feeling of wanting a sudden fault line to open under my feet after making a tactless comment. But I try to be aware. Maybe I was raised well. Maybe I've been too exposed to the difficulties of life to be insensitive. Regardless, there is no excuse for insensitivity. The argument of "I was never taught" doesn't work in Judaism.
I didn't plan for this post to be Mussar. But we all could use some, and this isn't really the kind of issue over which people disagree. Ignore, maybe, but not disagree. I don't really see someone saying, "People have free speech and only hypersensitive people would get hurt from an insensitive comment."
The only solution is to watch what comes out of our mouths. This does not mean walking on glass all day. Rather, it means stopping ourselves from making comments which make light of struggles others might go through. For example, a joking "I ate so much on Yom Tov, I wish I could just throw it all up!" probably isn't very funny for someone dealing with an eating disorder. And "My father is going to kill me for being out so late!" might feel like a punch in the stomach to someone with an abusive parent. I can come up with a million more hypotheticals, but they all have the same message: words are powerful. They can build, and they can destroy. They can create comfort and fear. Words have the power to hurt, and to heal.
If we all try to open our eyes a little more, and commit to trying to make sure that our words will have only positive effects, we can pass on the message of sensitivity to our children, spouses, friends, and acquaintences, so that nobody will be forced to laugh at the knife peircing his heart.
Thank you to Junior Shmoe for your editing skills, and for looking away as the earth swallows me for accidentally making a tactless comments.