As most school-aged children’s language ability develops, they can tell you words are important, even if they do not know why. These same children, if they have been taught to be thoughtful, are also able to tell you that words are not simply just words. They are also likely to tell you, if they have been taught to be attuned to their feelings, that they have been hurt by someone’s words. Children learn these lessons about words, particularly when they meet other children. Yet, children are normally reckless with their words because they have not learned that words can kill the human spirit. But how is it that we, as adults, seem not to know this too? Or, do we know but choose not to be cautious with our words? Our very words can bring life—inspiration, hope, love, and growth— or death, hopelessness, chaos, pain and stagnation. As a teacher, I realized the power of words very quickly and tried to pass on this revelation to my students when I chose a one-act play called the “War of the Words”.
“War of the Words”, written by Robin Brancato, was the competition play I chose when I started teaching in Virginia at an inner-city school. I was teaching both English and Theater, and I thought how perfect this play would be for the One Act competition my students had entered. The play seemed fitting because it would emphasize the importance of communication and still incorporate enough action to keep the play moving, especially with less experienced actors.
“War of the Words” is about a conflict between two rival teenage gangs, The Notes and The Grunts. The cause of the contention between them is not ethnic diversity or class rivalries but irreconcilable differences in communication. But when a new girl, named Lucinda, comes to the school, both leaders of the gangs fall for her. Lucinda, who likes both leaders, must choose:
SPIKE: You hear dat? We gonna just stand here and take abuse from those gags?
PUNCH (enraged): Best! They think they’re best.
BUZZ, still focused on LUCINDA, tries to quiet his buddies with a wave of his hand. Meanwhile, in NOTES territory, the three couples continue whispering in poetry.
MOLL: Crude! They called us crude!
BETTE: They say we make ugly sounds! They got a lotta nerve!
DOT: Harsh! They better watch who they’re calling harsh!
Now THE NOTES can be heard speaking aloud again. BUZZ is completely fascinated with LUCINDA now, so his former hostility has fizzled out.
LUCINDA: Well, language is important, I agree,
But not the only thing, it seems to me…
GUINEVERE (disagreeing): A crime, when people don’t know how to speak—Their diction careless and their grammar weak.
DESIREE: And slang’s another thing that I deplore, I’d much prefer a lovely metaphor.
HOMER: Lucinda’s new here; she will come to see That perfect speech is a necessity.
The Power of Words
Is perfect speech a necessity? Ironically, perhaps, “perfect” is the wrong word. Rather finding the right words spoken in the right way is the necessity. Words are powerful, and they exist within a context. Understanding their context is as equally important as using the right words. For the environment in which the words exist determines their appropriateness. We have to be careful with our words. The Book of Proverbs gives several warnings:
The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences (Proverbs18:21).
When you lie about your neighbors, it hurts them as much as a club, a sword, or a sharp arrow (Proverbs 25:18).
Words can be used as a means to bring life or to bring death. Words can be used as a weapon and can be as lethal as one.
Neuroscientists, such as Dr. Andrew Newberg, has shed light on this statement. In his book Words Can Change Your Brain, co-authored by Mark Waldman, he explains “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” He further elaborates that “Language shapes our behavior, and each word we use is imbued with multitudes of personal meaning. The right words spoken in the right way, can bring us love, money, and respect, while the wrong words—or even the right words spoken in the wrong way—can lead a country to war. We must carefully orchestrate our speech if we want to achieve our goals and bring dreams to fruition.”
Paying Attention to Our Words
If we are going to achieve our health and wellness goals, including our dreams and aspirations, we have to pay attention to the words we speak to others and to ourselves—our thought-language. Are we allowing someone’s words to sabotage our health and well-being? The words we hear impact our health whether we are aware or not. Sometimes, by the time we become aware of the impact of words on our health, the damage has taken a toll on our bodies and our relationships. Words hold power.
In The Ten Guiding Lights to Health and Wholeness, we examine our language and its impact on our health. Every second of the day, the words we hear or speak will either bring life or death. Life is synonymous with growth, and death is synonymous with lack of growth. We have to think of our lives as gardens we are nurturing. We have to remove the weeds that spring up. We live in a fallen world, so constant weeding is inevitable. Every gardener knows patience is needed in caring for a garden. Quite similarly in order to be good gardeners of our souls, we have to slow down our lives to uproot thoughts lacking in life and vitality so that new life can come forth.
Reasons We Should Slow Down
- Slowing down is important to recognize or to capture these thoughts. There are some things we know about ourselves and there are some things we do not know. We have to create the space for the Holy Spirit to show us. For example, sometimes, there are words still playing in the background of our minds like the music to an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. I remember it was during my time with God in the quietude of the mornings that the word “someday” was shown to me. What was it about “someday”? Then the meaning, like the sun shining through the clouds, became lucid: I had based all my hopes and dreams on “someday”. Though the idea of “someday” was promising and good, it did not allow me to believe that God had already blessed me with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3). I was waiting for something I already had.
- We have to take time also to examine our motives and desires. We must foster a mindset of growth that will not see failure as final but as lessons—invaluable learning experiences—for the next step.
- We have to be brave and confront words laced with fears, rejection, and shame. What we do not confront, we do not conquer. These giants are usually within us. Facing these inward giants takes time and hard work.
- We must find the right words that will anchor us daily—words that are supported by God’s truths. Whether we use sacred or inspirational words, we want to make sure they are supported foremost by biblical truths in God’s words. The right words can anchor us during turbulent times, giving us hope and nourishment for the journey:
Take with you words, strong words of courage:
Words that have wings!…
Take with you holy words, words that know God;
Words that are sacred as healing waters,
Pure as light, and beautiful as morning,
Take with you tall words, words that reach up,
And growing words, with deep life within them.
Take with you holy words, words that know God (from Apples of Gold).
We are in a war of words. We tweet, we blog, we text prolifically. Never before have words challenged our minds and our psyches as they do today. We need strong words of courage that will break down barriers of division. We need words that will bring healing; we need words that will reach up and find the light in order to bring new growth.
The Ten Guiding Lights to Health and Wholeness recognizes the sixth commandment—you must not murder—as this call to give life through the words we say to one another and to ourselves. In chapter six of the book we become aware of our thoughts and emotions that can affect our behavior and bring stagnation to our being. Psalm 119:165 says, “Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble.” God’s precepts and principles bring peace (life); they protect us.
The health of our communities depends on our individual transformation. The words we speak to one another should bring health and healing. But, first, we must take up our own inner journey. We must also facilitate our own healing by being compassionate in the words we speak to ourselves. If we can speak compassionately to ourselves, we are likely to treat others with compassion. If we are overly critical of ourselves, then we will likely be overly critical of others. Transformation of our communities begins with each of us individually.
Take the journey to health and wholeness by ordering your copy of The Ten Guiding Lights to Health and Wholeness.
One-Act Plays for Teenage Readers and Actors by Donald Gallo
Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversational Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman
Apples of Gold by Jo Petty