“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
I bet, after hearing the first three words of this quote, you could have told me what the rest of it consisted of, who said it, and maybe even other famous quotes from the same inspirational leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Watch, you can even do it with a quote in Spanish. “Feliz Navidad, y… ?” Maybe Latin is more your style. “Carpe … ?” “Veni, Vidi, … ?”
Words are powerful. We witness their influence every day. Entire websites are dedicated to quotes from famous people. Spoken word poets find fame online. The pride of many cultures around the world centers on words in different forms and languages. Books, poems, letters, songs, and conversations have changed the world repeatedly. How could rearranging 26 little symbols (more or less, if you don’t speak English) into various patterns impact so many lives on such a profound level?
I never claim to know much of anything for sure, and I don’t expect that my beliefs will remain static with time. However, as you find me right now, I believe words are powerful because they are essentially the simplest foundation of human relationships. Now, of course, people communicate in countless ways, such as body language, art, and other unconscious subtleties. But the fact that a baby’s first word or a child learning to read is a milestone every parent hopes for and documents lets me know that words are impactful and formative. And haven’t we all learned there’s no truth to the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” (I bet you could have guessed that quote, too.)
Have you ever taken a foreign language class? You know, that class where you learned a lot of vocabulary terms and conjugated confusing verbs. Many people never have the chance to use the language they are learning again, or they feel that the language barrier is too strong to reach out to native speakers. (Language barriers, by the way, are by no means relationship barriers.) But when I go to Cozumel every year to serve at a children’s home, I have the chance to talk with the kids, their house parents, and others in their community in their own language. I treasure the memories, stories, relationships, and experiences from Cozumel in my heart. Cozumel is not only where I learned a lot about myself, but I truly began to understand the importance of our words. No longer were the lists of vocabulary terms just another homework assignment. Conjugating the verbs actually mattered if I wanted to get my point across. Words meant an opportunity to discuss one of my passions, equine therapy, with a house papá. Words meant translating at our Special Olympics. Words meant finding the house we were delivering food to. Words led us to relationships and community. Through even the fumbled syllables, we were knit together, and our grasping for translations became a source of laughter, not frustration. That’s the beauty of community: The dizzying vulnerability of sharing and being open with one another can be pleasurable beyond belief.
Words, like any other form of power, can be used to our benefit or, unfortunately, our detriment. They can be unwieldy and misunderstood. Words can be the bricks that topple confidence, whether we’d like to admit to this weakness or not. Even unspoken words can influence our lives every day; your inner dialogue and the words you say to yourself can be medicinal or parasitic, healing or deprived of all positivity.
But what if we used words with the reverence they demand? What if words could be the milk and honey, soothing our souls and opening our eyes to the hope we have in this beautiful world? What if we shared our stories and opened our hearts to the community we have around us?
Use your words to open up to others. Let the chaotic thoughts and feelings out, no matter how scared or ashamed you may feel. Because words are powerful, and sometimes all we need is for ours to be heard. As another famous quote goes, “Say what you need to say.”