Winter commencement season 2016 brought with it excitement about the culmination of a rite of passage sought after and endured because of expectations of breath of knowledge, hope for professional opportunities, and ownership of preparedness to manage the potential obstacle course in the world beyond the college bubble. Working in higher education has afforded me and others freedom of thought and expression. Interacting with students, faculty, and community partners has also meant opportunities to engage in spirited conversations about life and current events.
This week I attended two graduation events and I heard two different graduation addresses made to graduates. The first speech I heard was made by a college dean and the other by a state politician. Both speakers compelled their audiences to celebrate the voices of all people around them, especially those whose concerns and messages are different than their own. Their impassioned words drew verbal responses from their audiences and prompted conversations between the audience members during the speeches and afterwards.
As I listened to the commencement speaker at the end of the week, I was reminded of an online interview I watched recently. In that online interview, I heard a young woman make a distinction between the actions of one person and the words of another person. More specifically, she was trying to explain how one candidate “did” something and the other candidate only “said” something. There was an argument made that a person saying “nasty things” was not as impactful or negative as doing “nasty things.” The young woman also suggested that the things we say don’t have an impact on how we operate as individuals. She argued that the things said in no way influence the way we govern ourselves or others.
After hearing this young woman defend “nasty things” that people say, I thought about the number of people who have lived their lives trying to overcome the pain and grief caused by something said to them. How many people struggle as adults because someone told them they would never succeed or because someone called them fat or ugly? How many people have said that they have used the words of another person to motivate them to do better or do more? I remember players for a professional football team saying that the trajectory of their championship season changed from losing to winning after a powerful locker room speech. I have seen the words of rejection from a break up or firing leave people in tears, in depression, or sitting with a tub of ice cream inhaling the cool, chocolaty, diary goodness. Words have power and there is power in our words.
Maybe because I am a writer, I have a tendency to let my imagination take off and live in the world of “what if’s.” I wondered, “What if one of those speakers had the opportunity to have dialogue with that young woman? Would it be possible for the young woman to own the power of her words like the more senior commencement week speakers?” The speakers embraced the opportunities to stand in front of audiences and use words to call for people to engage in critical thinking, to increase the social conscience of the community, and to fashion conversations built on informative, unifying words. I wanted to know how many of us deny the power of the tongue and the power of the words spewing from our mouths. I wanted to know if we realize that denial of our verbal strength will not prevent our words from influencing those around us. Our words spark people to think or live out the messages in our words. I began to think about how reckless and dangerous it was for the young woman and others like her to use words to form sentences without expecting those words to prompt a response of some sort. If there is no expectation of actions or impact from words, why are we speaking at all? If there is no expectation of actions or impact as a result of our spoken words, why would I ever say, “Hey, did you hear what I just said?” Why would anyone ever get upset with their kids for not doing exactly what they were instructed to do? Why would there ever be a need for an apology if the words and “nasty things” we say to one another are not “doing?”
I am beginning to think that only a person who does not want to hold themselves accountable for the things they say believes that their words don’t matter or have power. I also wondered if people who believe their words are powerless have a fear delving into their hearts and minds to examine the core that drives their thoughts and the passionate words spoken by them. Believing that our words influence our communities means that we might also have to evaluate the heads and hearts of those we love or support. Believing that our words have power means that we might need to challenge the people around us to broaden their thinking and vocabularies. We might have to actually listen to the words coming out of our mouths and the mouths of the folks around us. We would have to understand that our word choices, the organization of the words in the sentences, and the inflections used in the phrasing of the words all matter. I started to realize that some people are living robots able to repeat the same phrases over and over again as long as their words result in their desired end.
Once, when I was a child, I told grown ups that someone who was close to the family “did” something to me that I didn’t like. I remember also telling grown ups that another person “said” something to me that I didn’t like. What was “said” and what the other person “did” caused me pain and confusion that impacted how I interacted with people for many years. I used words to tell grown ups that I needed their support and help only to have them make a decision not to act in response to my words. Even as a child, I expected that my words would prompt some type of action or response. I know that when there was no action and my childish words were rendered powerless I was forced to cope and build up defenses that impacted my communication for a long time. Maybe the young woman in the online interview “said” words at some point in her past and nobody “did” anything in response. Maybe that is why she can say that there is a difference between doing and saying “nasty things.”
As a result of my childhood experiences that silenced me for a while, I made a decision to use my words to support and defend young people. I also learned that being ignored by people when I am speaking to them is a pet peeve of mine. I became stronger when I learned that my words had power whether I wrote the words or communicated them verbally. I hope that my audience will accept that their words are nouns and that when the words are spoken they become action. I want us all to remember that whether we “do” something or “say” something that involves words that the words we use and the way we use those words matters. There are quite a few proverbs in the Bible that remind us that words have power. Those verses speak about the favorable outcomes when we use words responsibly and the unfavorable life predicaments that flow from irresponsible uses of our words. I hope that my audience will hold themselves and those who govern accountable for their words and the resulting outcomes even when the person speaking looks like them or often agrees with their personal philosophies. I hope that we will define the word “govern” loosely to include those in our friend circles, our religious circles, our school boards, local governments, and our global community. Having the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas through language is a blessing and we must remember that the words we speak have the power to heal, empower, enlighten, and educate our communities.