There is one phrase that, when spoken, brings an immediate spark of fear within us. There are actually many words that can freeze our heart, such as when our boss walks up to us and says “I want to see you in my office right now,” or when our significant other won’t look us in the eye when they say “We need to talk,” or when we get a phone call from the doctor a couple of days after taking blood from us, saying “Please come to my office as quickly as you can.” Actually, now that I think about it, there are oodles of things that would bring out my inner “Oh, crap, what fresh Hell is this?” But I want to concentrate on one in particular, one that if you have a brother or sister you heard with some regularity, or even if you weren’t cursed with siblings you were confronted with these words from some obnoxious little twit in the playground. To be honest, I don’t think it invokes fear as much as it stabs you with guilt, whether you did anything or not. (but if you’re anything like me, you’ve always got something to be guilty about). When I tell you the phrase, imagine a little girl with pigtails and a starched dress puckering up her face in front of you and spitting out the words with venom: “I’m telling on you!”
I grew up with two younger sisters, and for some inexplicable reason I developed a penchant for torturing them. One day I took a Coca Cola bottle and poured all kinds of stuff from the kitchen into it (including, of course, hot sauce, pickle juice and vinegar) and then topped it off with some dark food color to make it look legit. I’ll never forget it if I live to be one hundred and forty: I handed it proudly to my sister Beth and she took a huge swig of it. I never knew liquid could shoot out the nose in two huge streams like that. When she recovered, she screamed “I’m telling!” and I instantly regretted it. I must have suffered from some sort of mental illness that prevented me from seeing the consequences of my actions beforehand. I think I was just blinded by my fervent desire to persecute them without mercy. My parents knew I had this sadistic streak in me, and tended to believe whatever horror my sisters told them about me. I wish I had kept track of my beatings, because I’m sure it would have set some kind of record. Once my sisters realized the power of “I’m telling on you,” they used it against me every opportunity they could. “If you don’t give me a dollar I’m telling Dad you tied two cats by their tails and threw them over the clothesline!” “If you don’t let me watch H. R. Pufnstuf I’m telling Mom you drank some of their homemade wine!” “If you tell mom I drank some of their homemade wine I’ll tell your friends you watch H. R. Pufnstuf!” I was damned. So, being doomed to an eternity of punishment, I redoubled my efforts to make their life miserable. I stopped torturing my baby sister, though, after she threw a heavy glass ashtray at me once and it pushed my eyeball out the back of my head. Here’s the puzzling part: whenever I told on my sisters my folks called me a tattletale and ignored my claim. I was indeed damned.
Eventually I grew up and joined the Army. The term ‘Tattletale’ was replaced with the word ‘snitch.’ There was no worse label. Once branded, the soldier was mistrusted and shunned. Gone were the days of face-to-face “You’re going to be in trouble when I tell!” That would have insured a melee. Instead, snitches typically slithered secretly to the Sergeant with their accusations. If the Sergeant was worth his salt, the snitch would regret his decision for the rest of his stay there. I’ve seen snitches hung on telephone poles by their tongues. We learned quickly in the military that if we saw another soldier doing something wrong, it was handled within the ranks and never spoken of afterwards. But this is where it became interesting for me. No matter where I was stationed I quickly came to be known as the company comedian. It was kind of like being a court jester. I could say anything, no matter how outrageous or disrespectful, and as long as I made it a joke people laughed. I discovered that if I used my sister’s nasally, accusing whine “I’m telling!” everyone would laugh nervously, because there was a part of them that, even for a moment, thought I knew what their dirty little secret was. Like I said, we all have something to feel guilty about.
Do me a favor and try it today. You pick the moment. I don’t care if you catch someone doing something wrong or not. Just blurt it out like you mean it and watch the reactions. Hey, even if they look at you funny the rest of their life, you can be sure there’s some little voice inside of them wondering if you will indeed tell on them. Who knows, it might even make someone fly right.