I often make the comment that, “words matter.” You’re probably saying (in your head), “Way to go, Captain Obvious! You appear to have a firm grasp on reality.” I don’t say that because I’m kind of a geek about words and what they mean, but because words have an immensely powerful impact on our relationships with one another, and with ourselves. As I have said in past posts, words “frame” our understanding of the world around us, and even within us. We often live in our own little fantasy land of “shoulds” and “could be’s” that allow us to shape reality according to our purposes – which is usually to do what we want to do without consequences. For example, I may perform a task (fill-in the blank here), and when I don’t perform according to my exacting standards, I begin a ruthless and unforgiving rant about what a failure I am. Unfortunately, the bar always rises higher than what I have accomplished, thereby making me always a “failure.” Of course, the moment that I label myself a failure (“failure” is a trait, “failed or failing” is a matter of performance) then only failure will be what will be produced into the future. Almost instantaneously, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy producing the same results over and over again.
Now, I don’t want you to conclude that if you just change a few words, then everything will change. Hardly. But it’s important to remember that we have been engaged in an active program of indoctrination for a very long time without any resistance to the ongoing commentary and monologue that going on in our heads. Resistance? What does resistance mean? Actually it’s pretty simple, but incredibly difficult to do mostly because we want to extinguish the commentator (a little like judge, jury and executioner) rather than inject doubt into his/her assertions about our failure. What’s crazy is that it is two very simple words… “maybe not.” That sounds incredibly powerful, right? (I’m being facetious, of course) Sometimes, okay maybe often, we overlook the more obvious things that would make a tremendous difference in how we can change things. We (I) get ourselves convinced that I have to “stop” something from happening to get things to be better rather than building up another area in our lives that will make that struggle less powerful in our internal commentary. Ironically, when I take this “maybe not” approach, the commentary gets less and less powerful because it has been invalidated rather than completely “shut down.” Of course, the “shut down” approach is simply applying the same approach that we have used in all the other situations which only makes me more of a failure. If I keep doing the same thing over and over again, I will keep getting what I’ve always gotten.
Wow! I realize that the above paragraphs are a very long “set-up” for what was really rolling around in my head about the power of words. However, the table needed to be set before we move into the next “course.”
Another aspect of words with which I have recently been struck is the nature of what we do with them. You might be thinking, “What we do with them? Don’t we use them to convey our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and stuff like that?” Yes, we do, but there’s more about our use of words which we need to be aware. The reality is that I can use words to convey meaning and to reflect the state of my thoughts to others. It needs to be said (a little psychology “weeds” for a moment) that words in the purest sense are symbols for something else. The hieroglyphics in Egypt are “words” except that they are pictures of what was meant at the time. Over the course of time, humans have developed more and more economical ways to communicate meaning which has eventually resulted in alphabets and language and exceedingly complex communications. The result of this “evolution” of language is that words carrying meaning, and we depend on them to do so. In the purest of our relationships with others, words have meaning and they convey important things about ourselves that others simply wouldn’t have unless we revealed them through words. In many ways, that is exactly how words should be used – to carry specific, clear, and truthful information about whatever the topic.
Unfortunately, there is another way words are used that is equally important to recognize. Actually the reality of words is contained in the last sentence. Instead of being “used” to convey meaning and revealing the truth about ourselves to others, they can also be “used” to hide who we really are, and can be “used” as a trade. Let me put this into a relationship in order to make it clearer. If I’m talking to someone and I’m describing how I feel to him/her, I have a choice to either describe what actually is, or I will “use” words to trade with that person for something of value to me – like closeness and intimacy. Therefore, in that case, I will say something that will draw him/her closer, and they will respond. The hitch in all that is that the words I use may or may not be truthful about how I’m actually feeling. For the person who uses words functionally to accomplish some end that he/she desires, the truthfulness of the words he uses doesn’t really matter. In this case, words are used to accomplish something rather than reveal the truth.
I often have people ask me how they know whether or not they are part of an unhealthy relationship. One way to figure that out is the role that words play in that relationship. The complication is that people don’t purely use words to manipulate outcome, or purely to convey truth. They do both, and it’s up to us to figure out which is which. I once heard Rick Warren (Senior pastor at Saddleback Church in Mission Viejo, CA) say something that is applicable here. He said, “ A half truth is a whole lie.” The bottom line is that we can use our words to convey truth, or we can use our words to manipulate to get what we want. In an unhealthy relationship, words are “traded” for some future desired outcome. They may or may not be an accurate reflection of truth. In many ways, it doesn’t matter to the person “using” words like that. The only measure of the so-called “veracity” of the words he uses is whether it accomplishes the ends he desires.
In healthier relationships, words matter. Words convey meaning that are binding to the person using them. They are not used to trade for some commodity. They are meant to reflect reality even though we can’t seem to find adequate words to do that. Now, that doesn’t mean that when people are true to themselves and communicate that to me, that I will respond in kind and it draws us closer. But, it isn’t an “if…then” thing. In other words, a person who uses words to manipulate reasons using the “if… then.” An guy may think, “If I say something nice to her, then she will respond to me the way I want her to.” Unfortunately, that state of affairs is what I see way too often in young adult relationships to which I am a witness on CCU’s campus among other places. Words are used to accomplish some end. Words aren’t use to reflect something essential about ourselves with an invitation to the other person to do the same. It’s an invitation, not a demand. If we have any hope of having healthy, Godly relationships, then we must seek to institute what God has in His relationship with us. He invites us into relationship, it’s not a demand. Freedom is the key. If we respond, we do so out of freedom not obligation. If we don’t respond (which is equally available to us although not as beneficial), we suffer the consequences accordingly. We must do the same in our relationships with others. It’s important that we develop the language of freedom and invitation rather than demand and manipulation. Is it risky? Of course, because then the person has the freedom to say “no!” But, the depth and beauty of the relationship grows in freedom not in demand and manipulation. If someone has the freedom to say “no,” then the same person has the freedom to say “yes.” And when important people in our lives do say “yes” it means so much more because they have truly chosen freely.
Words words, words… words have the power to free and the power to enslave. If you want to know where you land on that point, watch your behavior, not your rhetoric. If you really want to know where you land, ask people you interact with regularly and see what they say (as long as you give them the freedom to be honest without retribution or punishment). There is a spiritual reality here that anchors the temporal reality that we experience everyday. Words are probably the most powerful weapon we have in our arsenal. How will you use them?