The power of words

Michael/English teacher/Hsinchu East District Elementary School

Teachers have an amazing influence on students. They have the power to transform lives with mere words. With a properly chosen word a teacher can motivate, encourage, discipline, inspire, and educate. How often have older adults looked back in awe at what inspirational things were spoken to them by their favorite teacher? When asked what she did, Krista Macauliffe (American teacher who died in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy) once said: “I touch the future, I teach.” The truth of her description of her profession is illustrated each time adults recall words spoken to them by childhood teachers. Another popular saying points out the fact that important teachers are not just those professionally trained to lead in a traditional classroom setting. The saying: “It takes a village to raise a child” illustrates the importance of community in the lives of students. Everyone has the opportunity to positively impact the lives of students. With the influence of modern technologies-particularly the internet we live in a global village. Each person can choose to be a global citizen and use the power of words to positively impact the world. It is so important to be aware of the power of our own words and the impact they have on others.

Words have always fascinated me. As a very young child I remember listening to my father talking with the pastor of a church we attended. Though I didn't know the meaning of many of the words they used, I learned to recognize changing inflection, facial expression and other changes of body language to indicate the seriousness or levity of the topic of their discussion.

My father also used to like to impersonate one of his (and my early) favorite singers – Tennessee Ernie Ford. When set to music, words become magical, even more captivating. When voiced powerfully by a talented singer words are all the more stirring.

I also remember playing word games with my mother. Sometimes she would start by saying or writing two or three letters and ask me to add letters to create words. This idea has been on my mind even more recently as I have begun to make significant progress in learning Mandarin, a language far different from English - in so many ways!

Playing this game as I did with my mother, take the word “word” for example, if you start with the letters W-O-R, a likely letter to follow is D, making “word.” But, you might add “k” and make “work;” or add “th” and make “worth.” Now if the pastor who was talking to my father overheard this progression happening at Christmas time, I can imagine him saying: “I know of a story about a “Word” to whom we should make much effort ( work ) to place much “ wort h.' Then he would remind us that John 1:1 says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This pastor might also point out at Christmas, that so many people think of Jesus as coming at that moment in history when he was born in the manger. He would continue to point out that those who understand John 1:1 Know that Jesus is the “Word” referred to, and they know that Jesus existed from the very beginning of time, or more precisely the very beginning of God. For, “in the beginning was the Word, …the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The pastor would reiterate that the child born on the first Christmas was no mere baby. He was the Word of God, and to Him certainly, to this “Word” we should work to place much worth. It is Him above all else that we should wor ship.

I found a blog written by Amy Jane (whom I have never heard of prior to today) on which she shares some very appropriate thoughts about words. Excerpts and the link follow: By Amy Jane

“Written or spoken, words are continuously propelling us through life. They lift us up, drag us down, wound us deeply or heal our hearts. Words have the power to break confidences, build life long alliances or start wars.

…….Words can make or break us, both as individuals and as a society. What have you been saying lately? The words you speak can have a profound effect on the people they reach……..

……..are you tearing down your own family with words of criticism, bitterness and judgment? Are you causing the destruction of your self-esteem by speaking ill suited words over yourself, your health and prosperity? Words have set whole nations in motion…Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world. Joseph Conrad

………..In the Bible, James compares the human tongue to a horse. We have mastered controlling this tremendous, spirited animal with a small piece of metal, yet we are far from controlling the words that fall from our lips.

If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to harness the whole body...Indeed we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn (or control) their whole body. James 3:2-3

Why then, do we find it so difficult to refrain from saying words we know will only harm? Controlling what we say, though, how hard do we really try? Is it simply a form of self discipline that we are lacking? We seek to control every single aspect of our lives. Self-control? Nah, what fun is that?

Surely it is easier to harness the power of a wild horse than to reign in your tongue. It does seem to take on a life of its own bursting out of control at times when emotions are elevated. Whether we are quickly placing our foot in our mouth or cutting down another driver in rush hour traffic, it is a problem most of us (unless you live in isolation) combat daily.

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right time, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. “ Dorothy Nevill

Maya Angelou on the Power of Words

I Was Only Joking!

Can't you take a joke? Well now, that all depends. If we follow up a rude or insulting comment with the phrase “I was only joking” does it not count to the person we said it to? Does the sting of the words vanish, having no lasting effect? Are we therefore innocent, somehow not responsible for the rubbish spewing forth from our mouths? We may have the right to free speech, but speech is not entirely free. There are always consequences for what we say, whether or not we realize our impact.

………..“Love is patient, Love is kind. It does not envy, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, it rejoices with truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” 1 Cor. 13:4

Words can inspire us to greatness; they enable us to share our deepest feelings with one another. Words can change us as individuals. When used with care, they can change the world around us.

Choose to use your words to encourage and uplift. Choose them with wisdom and love.”

The authors cited above eloquently express ideas which I wish were my original thoughts. Often I have felt though, that my words have fallen on deaf ears, not because they lack eloquence, but possibly because they are mine, the recipient discounts them as worthless, as they imply through various ways, that they believe me to be worthless.

While Dorothy Nevill points out the importance of leaving some things unsaid no matter how tempting it is to say them, of equal importance is the art of listening - even when we struggle to value what is being said. Perhaps the speaker lacks eloquence in our view, or the content of his/her speech seems trivial. It is not uncommon for some listeners to respond to such speech with demeaning or insulting comments and then discount them, their jibes saying: “Oh, I was only joking!” “Can't you take a joke?” As Maya Angelou noted.

Whether they are unaware of the painful power words can have, just insensitive, or cruel, some choose to use words to “tease.” Usually, the one teased is younger, smaller, or perceived to be weaker than the person teasing. The painful, harmful, effects of teasing is commonly unknown or disregarded by those who do it, and while it appears that the “teaser” must have listened to what was said, their teasing can imply that what was said is beneath value, and by persistence in teasing convey to their victim that he/she is worthless also. These ideas are supported in thoughts and references detailed on the following site:

“ Ultimately though, if someone perceives him or herself as the victim of teasing, and experiences the teasing as unpleasant, then it is considered hurtful. If the other person continues to do it after being asked to stop, then it is a form of bullying or abuse.”

There are at least three other aspects of the power of the word to consider. Two of these have to do with intent.

When considering intent it is most important to know which audience the words spoken were intended for. It is often possible to “overhear” something not intended for our ears and misinterpret it in a way that is far from what the author intended. To be blunt, some people just eavesdrop (their first mistake) then hear or read something not intended for them and interpret it literally (a second mistake) – a possibility very common in the internet age – when the author(s) often say/write things not meant to be taken literally, and certainly not meant for the parties who eavesdrop or use other means to gain access to words not spoken/written to them. Then the eavesdroppers make matters worse and gossip their discovery ( a third mistake) perhaps even going so far as to inappropriately ascribe criminal behavior and psychological disorders to the author/speaker of the conversation they intruded upon.

It is also important to consider intent of what is said, and know the intent with certainty before judging/condemning, and in the internet age, it is more difficult to do this. It has become common knowledge that many things are said on the internet that would not be said in person, and sometimes things are said that would not even be a thought if the authors met in person. Many things are said on the internet for quite a different reason than what the literal meaning implies, connotes, or denotes.

In English, the smallest unit of meaning is the WORD; while in Mandarin (at least the English translation of it) the smallest unit of meaning is a CHARACTER. The age of the internet often obscures and distorts true character and words. This happens when people say things that are “heard” by people for whom they weren't intended, and when people are branded with labels for words they said but did not necessarily mean to be interpreted literally. The true character of the author should be considered before coming to conclusions about something said – especially in the age of the internet and in situations previously mentioned.

When intent and character are considered before developing conclusions, many who have been condemned by something said might not be. When the right to privacy (recognizing and respecting conversations and audiences for which they are truly intended) is honored, misjudgments are less likely to occur.

But if we follow the advice of the pastor who visited my family when I was a child, and work to place much worth in the Word, our character will be more like His (the Word that came at the birth in the manger). If we work, and find our character to be like his, we will be patient and kind. We will not envy. We will not be easily angered, nor will we keep records of wrongs and those who have wronged us. We will not delight in evil; we will rejoice in truth. We will protect, trust, and persevere. We will not fail, and surely, we will not engage in conversations that may be “misinterpreted.”

And most certainly, we also will not “tease” or demean or use words which destroy. Nor will we misjudge.

Now another part of the Word we celebrate at Christmas, says the baby was born in a manger because there was no room at the Inn . John 1: 10 and 11 (paraphrased) also says that the Word came to many who received it not. Each person must decide to receive or reject the Word . What would happen if we all received the Word ? Words are fascinating aren't they? Some have so few characters and yet they convey so much meaning.