I’ve always been drawn to the complexity of words.
In the beginning it was the particular feel or sound that appealed to me. But over time I discovered the magical effects that words and combinations of words can have on people and situations.
I’m not talking about manipulation or messaging, or strictly getting what we want.
The magic to which I’m referring is largely humanitarian in its intentions. It involves dealing with situations that feature conflict and possibilities for hurt feelings, defensiveness, and collateral damage of the interpersonal kind.
Growing up I was always sensitive to the dangers of human interaction. I saw minefields everywhere and experienced sadness and guilt at the hands of words (both mine and others’).
But in addition to managing their impact, I was also interested in leveraging their meaning. By recognizing the nuanced subtleties of words, putting them together just so, and choosing the right tone and mannerisms I could say exactly what I was feeling or thinking. But even more importantly, I could make everything ok, even when it clearly wasn’t.
Over the years I have tried to share my gift for words with those around me. As a friend I’ve offered countless conversation starters, and enders, for relationship break-ups and traumatic life events. As a parent I have modeled different ways to handle situations in hopes that my children would become more sensitive and kind. And in my work life I have used my words to incubate ideas, navigate change and uncertainty, and forge collaboration and trust.
But as I reflect on the deep challenges facing our youth, communities, and ourselves- perhaps it is time to elevate the importance of words. Being able to articulate visions and ideas in ways that resonate and align with commitments; helping children assert their individuality while preserving their social capital; arming women with the words to empower themselves while building consensus and support- these are all necessary for our collective growth. Yet they all call for a sophisticated grasp of language and communication that many seem to lack.
Without this ability, things can go terribly wrong and yet individuals may have no conscious awareness of their involvement or shortcomings. This lack of self-awareness or sense of responsibility is perhaps the most troubling trend that I see. When framed within the virtue of honesty, we can completely miss the opportunity to do and be better, to elevate and mediate, to lift us all up and forward.
I should note that this sculpting of words goes well beyond English or ELA class. My own development has led me to the fields of literature and writing, cognitive psychology, as well as training in mediation, and even strategic planning. But there are virtually millions of pathways and opportunities to cultivate and develop associated skills.
Perhaps at the core is the idea that we have an inherent responsibility to those with whom we interact. Once we recognize that words are perhaps our most accessible and powerful tool, we can begin to enjoy their humanitarian potential.