This morning I am a little overwhelmed by the power of words. Simple arrangements of consonants and vowels that together form sound and meaning. You would think I would love words; I am an English teacher. I have spent countless hours of my life reading and writing words. I do love them. They not only help me communicate with others, express my inner self, and earn a living — they are so much fun! You may be aware of my embarrassing Words With Friends habit, or the fact that I love to complete a crossword in one sitting, or that I am abnormally amused by wordplay such as puns, innuendo, and hyperbole. One of my greatest joys as a teacher is playing with words to teach students about their own language and how they use it — how do you think I learned how to code switch?
However, even though I love words — they overwhelm me. How can these simple clusters of sounds have such power?
I watched a video on Friday during my training that interviewed a young boy who was painfully aware of the power of words. Because of his learning difficulties, he was placed in a special education classroom. In that room he got the resources he needed; outside of that classroom he was assailed with damaging words: “Hey, retard!” “You’re so weird!” “You’re dumb!”
On Saturday I learned about a young man who was verbally attacked in his graduate program. His classmates quietly uttered sexual taunts. They never touched him — but their words forced him out of the program.
We’ve all heard these stories. Persecutors attacking victims with their words.
But, guys, my words are powerful, too! If you’ve met me in person you know that I use a lot of words. A quick google search will tell you that the average woman uses 13,000-20,000 words per day. I am sure I do. I love to talk. Over the years I have tried to learn a little restraint and give others an opportunity to share the air space. I may have made a little progress, but I doubt it. I can talk.
Quantity is not really the problem though, is it? No. It’s word choice. It’s what we say. That’s part one. Part two is the meaning that others attach to what we say. That means that before I speak I should consider what I mean and then consider my audience — what will they hear. That’s a lot of pressure. I mean, how am I supposed to fit in my 13,000-20,000 words each day if I pause each time I think about opening my mouth. Exactly.
On Saturday evening, after we met with dear friends for dinner, I was lying in bed thinking about some of the words I used. One phrase stuck out in my mind. I was thinking to myself, “I know what I meant by that, but I should have added one more sentence to clarify. They may have totally misunderstood my meaning.” Been there?
If I had a dollar for every time I had to rewind the tape of my words to insert an explanation…
It’s no coincidence that at this time in my life I have taken a job where my words are so important. I, at 49 years of age, still need to learn this lesson — my words are powerful. The students I will meet, starting this Wednesday, have been beaten and bruised by words. I may never know how much. They have been mocked at school, questioned by their teachers, evaluated by their parents, and berated by themselves. They are bloody. My words must be salve.
When a student reads “bind” for “kind”, I will say, “Great job with that “d” sound at the end of the word! When you say ‘bind’ what do you picture for the first letter?” When she says “b”, I will say, “awesome!” I will celebrate each correct consonant and each correct vowel. I will applaud every remembered detail. I will try to help my students recover from the trauma of being assailed by and excluded from the world of words.
And, boys and girls, how do you picture that God would want me to carry this lesson — that my words must be salve — into the rest of my life? Do you picture me telling my husband that I appreciate him going to work every day? Do you picture me thanking my daughter for running the dishwasher or for cooking a fabulous dinner? Can you imagine me reassuring a friend or comforting a loved one — all with my words? That is what I picture. I picture my words as a healing balm that can cover a stinging wound. I picture them as gauze that will stop the bleeding and allow some time for healing.
And really, the only way I know to make that happen — to make sure that kindness comes out of mouth — is to do a heart check — a continual, day-by-day heart check. I know that if I am angry, angry words are going to come out of my mouth. If I am hurt, defensive jabs are going to burst forth. “…for out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) In fact, if we are hurting on the inside and we try to say things that are nice, or calming, or comforting, our listeners can often sense that our words are not genuine. They may hear us and think to themselves, “what a fake!”
Do you see why I am so overwhelmed? How can I take all this into account? How can I continually check my heart, consider my listeners, and evaluate my message?
I only have one answer — by the grace of God. And that is how I am going to step into today. I am going to ask God to purify my heart, filter my message, and when all else fails, cover the ears of my listeners. Forty-nine years have taught me I can’t do this on my own.
Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to soul and healing to the bones.