Why Words Matter

“It’s just a word.”

“Geez, don’t take it seriously!”

“It’s just an expression, it doesn’t mean anything.”

We’ve all heard this, maybe even said it, during the course of our lives.  How words are just that – words.  They hold no power unless you allow it.

Rationally, I get this.

Emotionally, my reaction is more “Bullshit!”

I’m a writer.  I use words, write words, read words.  I’ve seen words change lives, I’ve seen words hurt.

Words have power.  It’s why libraries and publishers and Kindles exist.  It’s why we have talk shows and NPR and therapy.

Words matter.

Words can be used to uplift, to express joy, pride, success, compassion.

Words can also be used to bring someone down, insult, spew hate.

And there will be people who will passionately defend their right to spew hate.  “Freedom of Speech!” they yell.  “Don’t censor me!”

It’s not about censorship, nor about taking away someone’s freedom.  I’m not lobbying Congress to overturn amendments.

I’m asking, nicely, as someone who has been hurt by words – please, choose wisely.  Think for a moment before letting certain words come out of your mouth.

You can’t unsay something hateful. The person who hears or reads it can’t undo that knowledge.

You put words out there, and they stay out there.  We remember the good things said to us, we try unsuccessfully to forget the ones that hurt.

I can look back on my life and remember times when people used words to hurt me.  Being teased in school for things I couldn’t help – my height, my speech issues, my psoriasis.  “Ew! Is it contagious? That’s gross!” I remember in 7th grade, my suddenly former friends telling me that they no longer liked me, to go sit at the “loser” table.  I remember the high school English teacher who stared at me while announcing to the whole class that “SOME people don’t belong in my honor’s English class”.   I remember as a mom, watching another child mock my daughter, laughing at her while she cried.  “Ha ha! You’re a BABY!”

There are some things, even if you want to forget, just get burned into your brain.  Because at that time, those words hit you harder than the proverbial piano dropping on your head.  There are times when an unkind word was just another kick while we were already struggling, and made us wonder why we kept trying, why we didn’t just give up.  And then there were times when we were struggling and a string of kind words made all the difference.  “You know Phoebe, I think you have it harder than you let on…”  Those words were said to me over twenty years ago.  I still can’t explain how much they helped me.

We’ve all been there. We’ve been on both ends of the spectrum.

So why do we pretend that words don’t make an impact, that they don’t really matter?  To excuse our bad behavior?

No.

I’ve been told I take certain words “too seriously” and that there are “bigger things” to worry about.  Is there anything bigger than promoting kindness and respect towards our fellow human beings?

Is there?

Words make an impact.

Words can make or break a person.

Words matter.

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