Words, Words, Words…

<Sept. 2004>

I am a word person – big-time. I talk a lot (yes, too much), read a lot, write a lot, & never stop thinking. All of it in words. This fascination with words has been a lifelong deal for me. One of the things I recall getting the biggest kick out of in my early school days was our exercise workbook ‘Words Are Important.’

We women, we know, are much more verbal than men. We talk more – need to talk – & most women I know are like me. We know that we figure things out as we talk – unravel knots inside our heads – get ideas & inspiration – & experience sudden “Aha!” moments of understanding – in the very process of talking. We also download lots of crud. We understand that words unlock emotions (which have a tendency to fester & grow toxic when left unexposed – sometimes with disastrous results).

Why do human beings talk? Apparently, we haven’t always done so. Once upon a time, back in our earliest cave days, we got by on grunts, or so I gather. I don’t know much – anything at all, actually – about the evolution of language, but what I assume is that talk – language – evolved because we needed it. Grunting just wasn’t quite cutting it any more, as our lives became more complex. (No doubt there are learned books written on the subject of the evolution of language, for anyone who might want to pursue this line of thought).

What I marvel at frequently is the sheer power – & sometimes the sad limitations – of our verbal communications. I do believe that most relationships between men & women that fail do so primarily because of either a persistent inability from Day 1 to communicate well, easily & clearly – or a breakdown, over time, in effective two-way communication (this is a bit redundant; I need not really say two-way communication, in that communication is by its very nature a two-way street – but it seems there are at least some folks who do not entirely grasp this, & so I emphasize it here).

Words really are important! Our relationships (not just the female-male ones, either, but all of them) succeed or fail, live or die, deepen or stay shallow, depending on how well we are able to use them – to communicate. We couldn’t write our history books (or maintain oral story & history-telling traditions) without them.

Words have enormous power! When we keep secrets, or tell lies, it is entirely possible to change the very course of our lives (& the lives of those closest to us). Think of victims of sexual abuse whose years of keeping silent make many terribly unwell, both emotionally & physically (& whose unspoken wounds, ‘though they may not know it, affect those around them too).(1)

Think of all the things we cannot – & ought not – to say! Every day, there are plenty of these. Thoughts we have that we ought not, & do not, give voice to. Petty thoughts – unkind thoughts – hurtful things best left unsaid.

Think too of the things we say without thinking – too impulsively – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill (words, unlike objects, can never be retrieved). Our words can inflict terrible damage. (Guilty!) The ones we don’t say can hobble us too, of course…

And think of the many things that really are not reducible to words. The incredibly deep feelings of love we experience – especially for our children, & sometimes, if we are lucky, for a partner or spouse. There are really are no words adequate to describe those feelings. Many places in our world/Nature are so stunning, also, that they truly defy description altogether.

Pause…

It seems to me that our children’s self-esteem, & our own feelings about ourselves, have almost everything to do with the words they & we hear/have heard (of course, non-verbal communication also plays a very significant role). I myself have been amazed on many occasions at how much of a lift kind words – compliments – from friends & loved ones – have given me. There have even been things about myself – my own character – that I haven’t really understood until someone else articulated them for me – with words.

I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to be captivated for the rest of my life by words: their power, their beauty, their ability to illuminate & express & inspire; also, their power to inflict serious harm.

I hope I’ll learn some important lessons about words, too. When to wait & think carefully before speaking. When to keep quiet altogether. How to convey certain essential messages in a more loving, sensitive way. When to say kind & thoughtful words that someone badly needs to hear. How to pay more compliments – genuine ones, mind you! – to the people I care about the most.

For me, it’s a serious understatement to say that words are merely important. I really believe that they – along with conversation – are practically the whole darn karmic enchilada!

Janet

P.S. I wrote this little essay – yikes! – almost 5 years ago now, but this post-script is brand-new. I had dinner with some friends & new acquaintances the other night, & we talked religion some, & of course it came to me then to what an astonishing degree words have long separated us & caused us to visit unspeakable horrors upon one another. Words & concepts about our faith(s), & how we kill & bomb & torture one another in the name of religion – of God (who, btw, did not create religion; religion is man-made). And underneath all this horror is the complete inability of anyone to know God – to have even the faintest real handle on what that word/concept really means – or to reduce the incredible mysteries of our origins & this amazing Universe to mere words in some “holy book.” Holy smokes, people! Surely to goodness our challenge as human beings (an adolescent species as yet, as some big thinkers have pointed out) is to learn to live in harmony despite our differences – not trying to make everyone be just like us & believe exactly what we believe. Surely to goodness the freedom to have our very own thoughts & beliefs – while working carefully & thoughtfully together to maintain & enhance the possibility of life on our beautiful planet – is one of the key challenges of our existence??


(1) Richard Rohr has said, “All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it to those around us.”