Words are on my mind this morning. The power of words, the near limitless number of them. The taste and sound of them, and the letter combinations, making each one unique. Our dependence upon them to communicate well, almost like an addiction.
Solomon said, “When words abound, transgression is inevitable.” His conclusion was that the wise one restrains his words. Tough advice for a writer. As prolific – and yet, as wise – as he was, it makes me wonder what he chose not to write if he was taking his own advice and restraining his words. I also have to wonder about all the transgressions that have occurred because the words that should have been spoken, but weren’t. That seems to be the two-edged weapon that words represent: the potential to wound or to heal, depending upon what is said and when it is spoken.
My fifteen-year-old wanted the family to watch The Book Thief with her last night. She had read the book and seen the movie in the theater, and the disc had arrived a couple of days ago in the mail. Knowing how much she loved it, I was caught off guard at the movie. I won’t wreck it for you by throwing out a spoiler, but suffice it to say it was very different from what I expected.
In spite of that, I could see why she loved it: in its own way it offered hope and contained a clever usage of words throughout. Markus Zusak, the author of the book, is an immensely skilled wordsmith, creating poetry with the letters, and in a single phrase, cutting straight to the heart of the matter.
From the movie, I loved the description of one character in particular, that he had “an accordion heart” and another was a “woman cloaked in thunder.” Such apt and vivid imagery. Beautiful words. The basement walls at the Hubermann house were a testament to the importance and value of them.
Now fast forward 70 years from that basement and consider the app on my iPhone. It is a Merriam-Webster dictionary, unabridged, holding every word written on those walls and more and small enough to carry around in my pocket. I use it mostly for the daily word feature. Every morning, I awake to a new word, welcoming me back to consciousness and reminding me of my passion to write. That daily word is an introduction to all the ones that will follow it over the course of my day. It’s a pleasurable slide from the horizontal position of sleep, to one of vertical activity and brain synapses. In short, it’s a wonderful way to wake up, being greeted by words.
For the first year or two of a child’s life we prompt them to speak by repeating words, enunciating clearly and over-emphasizing the facial contortions of the muscles needed to form the words on our tongues. Once they grasp the concept, we spend the next 4 to 5 years wondering why we tried so hard to teach them, because now they’ve taken the ball and run with it and we can’t get a moment’s peace where they’ve stopped asking questions. By the time they’ve hit the teenage years, we can only hope we’ve taught them both the power and the pain of words, that having a vocabulary is only the beginning, and the responsibility to manage it well must go hand in glove.
It’s a lesson we all must learn, to control the tongue. To use our words for good. To speak the harsh truth only when it’s tempered with love, and to be generous with our praise. Words are so complex we can spend a lifetime studying them, but simple enough that even a child can use them. With them, we pass on a legacy of blessing or a legacy of cursing, both literally and prophetically. This is the power of words.
After reading a good book, I like to jot down a favorite phrase or two from it. After watching a movie with my girls, we spend the next week inserting lines into our daily conversations where ever applicable.
“On your left!” from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
“So…” spoken with a deeply emphasized Minnesotan accent from New in Town.
Or maybe it will be “Gone, gone!” in a creepy Gollum voice from LOTR.
My younger daughter has a particular knack for memorizing movie quotes, even after a one-time viewing. While the feel and the tone, the message and the story of the movie carry the impact, the words are the way we share it and make it last and apply it to our lives.
Words – such fascinating little creatures, made up of even smaller letters, all packing the power of a literary punch. We can use them to build or to demolish. We can encourage or criticize. We can speak life or we can speak death.
J.K. Rowling was so brilliant in illustrating this in her Harry Potter series with the “Killing Curse.” Not only were the words necessary, but the hatred and the intent to kill also had to be behind them. Sounds a lot like the words we use today, devastating in their effect. How many times have I unleashed the equivalent of a “killing curse” when I’ve ripped or shredded hearts with the words coming out of my mouth?
In A Knight’s Tale, Chaucer’s only revenge was to fall back on his words, threatening to “eviscerate you in fiction.” Clearly, while not having the same immediate and painful results as a beating, this promise was sufficient to satisfy his longing to retaliate. As an author, he knew the long-lasting impact of words, especially those written and recorded for all time, when he said, “I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.”
Consider the childhood verse:
Sticks and stones can break my bones
But words can never hurt me.
Right. Whoever wrote that was either deluded or a ridiculously optimistic idealist out of touch with reality. It’s just not true. Sticks and stones can injure and even kill if applied with brute force for a sufficient amount of time; but in most cases, the injuries are far from serious and mend quickly and would many times be preferred over the wounds inflicted with words. These are what cut deeply and scar. These are the wounds not easily forgotten and not easily healed.
Truly, we hold the power of life and death on our tongues, which is why “the pen is mightier than the sword.” It is why skilled orators reach the levels of authority they do and how politicians climb the political ladders of government and why all the Kool-Aid-drinking cult members follow their leaders when the rest of the world sees them for the frauds they are. It is why we have bestseller lists and book contracts and why we repeat movie lines and laugh at clever dialogue. It’s why we write love letters and journals and why we dedicate whole buildings to newspaper printing and book publishing and libraries. Words record history, give instructions, and pass on our way of living and thinking and interacting.
With that much influence and power comes so much responsibility to use our words wisely, to use them for good, and to speak life into the hearts of those around us. Permanent roommate took a minute on his morning break to text me: “Good morning, beautiful!” and in an instant, I felt beautiful, much more so than before his text. This is the power of words.
May we all be more mindful of using ours to build and encourage and inspire.