Our Words Matter

A wall of words, with some highlighted, and a multi-colored circle projected on top.

At Planet Word, the museum dedicated to language, in Washington, DC.
Wall of words at Planet Word, the museum dedicated to language, in Washington, DC. The photo is the author’s own.

I just finished a power yoga class. I do yoga regularly nowadays, and have, off and on, since I was a teenager. Today, I tipped over onto my head/left cheek while doing bakasana (crow pose.) It’s not the first time I’ve fallen while doing it and it probably won’t be the last. I used to get embarrassed and stressed when I couldn’t do, or had trouble with certain poses. But, a while back I had a yoga teacher say, “It’s a practice, not a perfect.” It’s a practice, not a perfect. Take that in, say it aloud. Let it roll around in your mouth and sink into your brain. What an amazing statement. Whew, when I first heard it, it felt like a revelation. I know that sounds silly, but it did.

I’ve been thinking about words and language a lot lately. We spend much of our lives online parsing the intent and meaning of words written by others. We have a million memes about professional email verbiage, “Per my last email.” Those in the dating world spend time crafting what they hope are the perfect answers for the questions asked on dating apps. Online platforms, like Facebook and Spotify, are using the First Amendment’s right to free speech, as their defense for allowing hate speech to stay on their sites.

Words matter. They matter more than we realize. They have the power to fundamentally alter someone’s outlook. They don’t even have to be profound to make a profound impact. I’ve said those six words, “It’s a practice, not a perfect,” to my daughters regarding any number of topics, ranging from school to exercise to emotions. My husband and I are trying to instill in our children the understanding that we do not expect perfection from them; perfection doesn’t exist; but we do expect them to work hard. Every day is different and every day we will tip over in some fashion or the other. It’s the getting up and continuing that matters. I use them to remind myself, on the not-so-great days, that no one is perfect, and we are all just doing our best. None of us are automatons and we cannot expect of others what we do not expect of ourselves.

Words, when spoken by the right person, can affect the rest of our lives, coloring the way we see ourselves and the way we perceive others’ reactions to us. Words live forever. They can maim us, causing wounds only we can feel. Someone once said to me, “You have a tendency to take up all the oxygen in the room.” And, they can heal wounds we didn’t even realize we had. Think about the first time you realized a friend accepted all of you, even (or especially) the difficult parts. What did they say that made you understand?

Words can slice with the scalpel-like precision or soothe like a mother’s touch. They can make us laugh or cry or transport us from where we are to an entirely new time and place. They can change hearts and minds or solidify what we we already believe. Words can bring us together or drive us apart.

Words can be famous, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” — President John F. Kennedy

Or infamous, “I’m not a crook.” — President Richard Nixon

They can make us groan when we see a particularly great (or terrible) dad joke or irritate us when they feel trite and cold. They can help us walk a mile in a stranger’s shoes and help others understand our world.

They say that actions speak louder than words, and sometimes that’s true. But, words can be actions in and of themselves. The simple act of saying, “I love you” can move mountains.

The power of words can be seen in all kinds of ways. Just look at the Wordle phenomenon. One man created a guess today’s word game for his sick wife. Now, seemingly all at once, millions of people are playing it and the New York Times bought the game from him! Words have a hold on us, even when they’re just for fun.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Oh yeah? No one has ever made you cry by saying something hateful or heartbreaking? Not even in middle school? That’s what I thought. It’s likely that you’ve cried more over what someone you cared about said to you than you did over a broken bone. That’s the power of words.

I think we would all do well to remember that words matter. What we say and how we say can have an enormous impact on those we care about and who care about us. We can all work on extending a little more grace to others.

“It’s a practice, not a perfect.” We all have good days and bad days. We all say loving things and not-so-loving ones. We’re all just hoping that the loving words far outnumber the rest.