I’ve always loved words. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed reading, writing, and speaking. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, and to this day, there is always a stack of books sitting beside my bed, or laying around the house for easy access. As a child, my love for words was honed through opportunities to write creatively in school, and I always loved bringing new worlds to life in short stories and poetry. When other kids were participating in various sports teams, I was participating in public speaking contests, spelling bees, and drama opportunities both in school and in surrounding communities.
In my teen years, my love for words and all things connected, grew and developed, and I branched into script-writing and poetry through both school and community programming. I was also able to start using my public speaking skills in new ways, presenting speeches for events, participating in debates and dramas, and writing well-crafted essays. I loved learning new words and finding ways to use them in my writing, and in my speaking opportunities. The ability to string my thoughts together cohesively through both written and spoken words is the way I have always made meaning.
I found that this “way with words” I had developed served me well, particularly in University, where open debate and discussion in class was encouraged, and opportunities to form opinions through conversation was the name of the game. I enjoyed writing reports, proposals, and essays – finding new ways to present ideas through written and spoken word. I took a class called “Critical Approaches to Analyzing Literature”, and although it was one of the most challenging classes I’ve ever taken, it was amazing to explore new ways of looking at what others have written before me, and the power of those words. I’ve also always been an avid history lover, and value the way that our understanding of the world has been shaped through the words and record-keeping of others who came before us.
As an adult, and professional teacher, this ability to communicate through words has been how I’ve essentially made a living, and engaged in volunteer opportunities through participation on various boards and committees, where discussion is key. In my role as an English Language Facilitator, I spend time helping others make meaning of words and language, and there is something so exciting about watching others learn how to communicate their own thoughts and ideas through their words. In my personal life, I have found great enjoyment in my newfound voice through social media outlets, such as Instagram and this blog, and it never ceases to amaze me when people reach out and thank me for something I’ve written or shared. As a result, I take great care in what I choose to put out into the world, and although I don’t always get it right, I always appreciate the opportunity to have my thoughts and ideas considered by others.
They say there are two types of people in the world; those who “think to speak”, and those who “speak to think”. I am 100% a “speak to think” individual. Words, both written and spoken, are the way that I process my thoughts. In my relationship with my husband, this has always been something we’ve had to navigate, as he is very much a “think to speak” kind of person. So, our discussions and arguments always look a lot like me pouring out my thoughts, while he needs time to step back and process before responding. It’s taken time for us to appreciate and value that we actually NEED to process differently because of how we are wired.
Which brings me to my role as a mom, and the power my words have in this context. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power our words as parents have on our children. Have you ever sat back and thought about some of the things you remember your parents saying to you as a child? What stands out? I’m often amazed at the words that actually hold a place in my memory – for better or for worse! Why is it that certain conversations stick with you forever, even from childhood? And could my parents ever have realized the power those particular words would hold in my memory?
I recall a conversation I had with my dad when I was about six or seven years old. We were going to be doing dishes together at the sink, and he asked me if I wanted to wash or dry. I wasn’t sure which task would be “better”, so he told me that he always chose to wash when given the option, because “it was like a bath for your hands”. To this day, EVERY TIME I was the dishes, I recall that story, and it brings a smile to my face. I mentioned it to my dad once, and he doesn’t even remember that interaction; and really, why should he? In the scheme of what was important in his life at that time – a young dad, teacher, and husband – that little tale was simply a flicker in time, intended to help me make an unimportant decision. But to me, as a child, for some reason that interaction stuck – I remember it, word for word.
Now, as a parent myself, I find myself reflecting – in both awe and dismay sometimes, at the glaring realization that my words truly are a major force in shaping my children. What will my children remember? What off-hand comment made, either in love – or frustration – will be the thing that sticks? I don’t get to control what my children remember or take to heart, but I do get to control what I say and how I say it in the first place.
And isn’t this true for us, even as adults? The power of words, either spoken or written. Isn’t it amazing how a simple thank-you note or word of encouragement sent through a text can warm your heart and make the whole day a bit better? And even more powerfully – how a harsh, critical, or hurtful word spoken in anger or frustration or ignorance can crush even the most confident individual? As children, for some reason, we embraced the lie, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Oh, have any words spoken ever been less true? As a christian, when I consider the power of my words, I go back to the source – and the Bible is literally FULL of verses that speak about the power of our words to bring good or evil about in the world, and in the lives of others.
Colossians 4:6: Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Ephesians 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Proverbs 21:23 Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.
Whether or not you believe in the Bible, or any religion at all, pretty much every belief system has something to say about how we use our words with others, and the ability we have within us every day to spread truth vs. falsehood; to either build others up, or tear others down. This is not to say that everything we say in life must make others feel good all the time; there are certainly times in life that call for difficult conversations, the need to be challenged in our actions or thoughts, and even, with our children, discipline and hard conversations surrounding right and wrong, and making good choices. Being able to communicate well is a huge part of life – including being able to communicate in times of conflict. I’ve never shied away from healthy conflict, in both my personal and professional life. Debate and the ability to agree to disagree when our thoughts and ideas don’t match someone else’s should be possible without devolving to a purely hurtful – or even worse, false – place.
An area of contention for me when it comes to both spoken and written words is how people often misuse language for personal gain. One of the cornerstones of democracy is the protection of free speech and our right to say what we need to say to be sure, but there is nothing more frustrating than people who throw words around inaccurately, misrepresenting ideas and individuals, or simply throwing out exaggerated statements for the purpose of making a point, regardless of the truth. We live in a world where people can say anything they want, and spread their ideas at such rapid speed, with very little need to consider the validity of what they are saying or repeating in a lot of cases. With the incredible amount of access we have to the thoughts and ideas and words of others in our technologically charged world, shouldn’t it be more important than ever that we really pay attention to what we are saying? And what others are saying? And whether or not those words are true? We underestimate the power of our words all the time, and the impact we can have on our world – both in our homes with our children, and on a global scale through our access to the internet and social media.
The point here is not that every word we speak needs to be sunshine and roses – and it’s absolutely true that sometimes the truth is hard to hear – but that we be wise in our use of words. That we consider our words before we speak (yes, even us “speak to thinkers”) when we know that what we have to say might be difficult for someone else to hear. That we weigh and measure the cost of what we are choosing to say. That we consider whether or not what we are saying is true, and whether or not we have chosen the best words for the conversation. And most importantly, that we consider the heart and intent behind our own words – is what we are going to say intended to understand others or build them up? Or is the intention purely to have yourself heard, even if it means tearing another individual down? The power of our words is huge, whether we realize it or not, and we are 100% responsible for the ones we choose to use.
So, let’s start young, and instead of teaching our children that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, instead, why don’t we go with something more like, “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Spider-Man, 1962). We are never too young – or old – to understand the power of our own words.
Photos by: Janna Gobeil Photography (http://www.jannagobeil.com/blog/)