Not long time ago I recorded two radio programmes consecutively, one after the other. As the recording session ended I turned to the sound engineer and said so amazed about what I have noticed: “What a difference has been between the first and the second radio recorded programme! The first one was so powerful!”
Yes! And I could not refrain from telling this person so! The discrepancy was so crystal clear and self-evident for me that I simply expressed my utter surprise at this fact! Words do make a difference. And a big one indeed! The American philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book What does it all mean? A Very Short introduction to Philosophy, simply marvels at how meaning can be conveyed in words. He writes: “We are small finite creatures, but meaning enables us with the help of sounds or marks on paper to grasp the whole world and many things in it, and even to event things that do not exist and perhaps never will. The problem is to explain how this is possible: How does anything we say or write mean anything – including all the words in this book” (p.46).
Nagel’s question is all the more justified. How does anything we say or write mean something? Or else, how it might have a meaning to some whereas to others it might mean something else? The great Austrian-British philosopher who worked mainly in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, as well as the philosophy of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his colossal 75-paged work on language, written in 1921, which bears the title Tractactus Logico-Philosophicus, duly asserted that “in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use”. In other words, what Wittgenstein was practically saying was that it is not a matter of one saying something that conveys the meaning of a word but it is the way that one says it and the context in which one says that word. Therefore, the fundamental importance of words lies in the manner one uses them.
To put it more spiritually, a word carries within it a spirit. It is one thing when a word is animated with a spirit of love, reconciliation and healing and well another story when one says or writes a word in order to destroy, divide and inflict pain and harm on his and her intended addressees. I never forget an article I once read on The Huffinton Post by the scientist, author, speaker and a regular contributor to the same newspaper, Dr. Hyder Zahed, named The Power of Spoken Words. Dr. Zahed made this subsequent observation very pointedly:
“When we speak we should speak with mindfulness, in a way to solidify peace and compassion in our characters. Not only do our words matter, but also the tone which we use has a huge impact. There are certain rules that should guide all our communications with others. Always speak the truth, avoid exaggerations, be consistent in what you are saying, don’t use double standards in addressing people, don’t use your words to manipulate others, and most importantly do not use words to insult or belittle anyone”.
Dr. Zahed’s reflection is namely emphasizing the point that all of us need to be extremely careful concerning the way we talk and write. Words are not cheap at all. They can either tell the truth or mislead it. They can persuade others or simply deceive them. Words can motivate one to love or to hate. Words can act as a very strong weapon for the good or the bad.
Let us not forget that when one talks or writes he and she is communicating and, thus infusing, the spirit with which those words are said or written. That is why it is essential that we decide to say and write words that build, encourage, criticize objectively and respectfully offering new valid suggestions. Only in this way can words become really restorative. In an interesting article entitled Words Made Public/Voices Made Powerful, Susanne Rubenstein notes:
“Our children know too well how to arm themselves with guns and ammunition, but we can – and should – teach them that words are commanding weapons, too. Words can pierce the heart and change a life, and to wield words well is extraordinary power. Young people want to be heard… We can give young people another way to express themselves and the beliefs they hold, and that is through written language” (p.11).
It is perhaps high time that us, adults, and our children and young people be gently and patiently taught about how to speak and write with charity in truth. The bible is an excellent teacher in this regard. A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov. 15:1). A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit (Prov. 15:4). The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream (Prov. 18:4).
May the later biblical verses help us use words wisely, caringly, truthfully, thus constructively.