Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Power of Words

From the beginning of time (or at least recorded history), one of the ways that the progress of a society has been measured is by its ability to communicate.  Some civilizations or societies maintained an oral tradition, passing on the knowledge and experiences gained throughout generations by a father talking to a son or mother to a daughter.  Others used a written language or process.

I have always loved words.  In many ways, it runs in the family.  We love to read and we love to talk.  The cynical among you might suggest a genetic predisposition to wordiness in my family.  It is possible.  Certainly, we are not afraid of words, written or verbal.  A quick scan through a couple of genealogical layers reveals writers of plays, poems, music, novels, encyclopedia, manuals, etc.  There are many accomplished orators in the same ranks.  Most love to read.  I know that I do.

Few things have the ability to affect a reaction more than WORDS.  Those reactions can vary across an incredibly diverse spectrum.  Words (and their associated symbols) can:
  •  evoke memories
  • trigger visualizations or mental images
  • elicit strong physical, spiritual or emotional responses

Words (written or verbal) carry a massive memory response or linkage.  The linkage goes in two directions.  Sometimes seeing or hearing something like a phrase or a word will bring a rush of memories.  Going the other direction, sometimes seeing, hearing or feeling something will bring “forgotten” words or phrases to our minds.  For example, for me, the image of a skull bring the words of The Bard (Shakespeare) from his play “Hamlet” to mind “To be or Not to be/ That is the question” (although technically, it should trigger “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”, but who’s perfect?).

The words of songs often have a strong memory or association.  Whether it is a children’s nursery rhyme or the song you associate with your true love, lyrics bring memories, good times and bad.

Some (verbal or written) symbols are firmly entrenched in our deep societal memory, going back beyond our physical lifespan.  They exist simply because it is such a huge part of our history. For example, consider a simple thing like a small red flower worn on a lapel.  For many Canadians (or at least for me), this triggers the lines of an oft repeated poem, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow; between the crosses, row on row...”  This brings memories of sacrifice and freedoms, memories of stories of ancestors, feelings of sadness and loss, but also joy and appreciation.  All from a simple poem and a symbol that is associated with it.

Words have the power to elicit a physical response. For me, the mere recitation of the lines of the above poem causes me to have a physical shiver and a tightening of my throat.  Hurtful words cause a physical tightening in my chest.  Spiritually stirring words cause warmth or burning feeling in the same area.

The old children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” may be true in theory, but words can cause (and have caused) many strong emotional responses, resulting in a physical reaction.  Some words cause us to smile or frown, laugh or cry.  “Them’s fightin’ words” is a pretty descriptive phrase, don’t you think?

It has been said that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, perhaps due to the ability of words to bring about permanent change more readily than physical and violent action.

I think that the true power of words comes from the ability to alter our emotional state.  Words can calm.  Words can upset, render us sad, angry, depressed or worried.  Words can brighten our day, improve our attitude or improve our morale.  Words can enrich us.  Words can be treasures or they can destroy.

Words are like rocks thrown into a pond.  The next time you are in a room of people, watch what different people’s words do to the emotional atmosphere.  I’m sure you’ve seen it before.  The first words or comments will set the direction or tone of the subsequent discussion.  A positive or optimistic word will spawn more positive comments.  Negativity will do the same.  Nothing dampens enthusiasm or creativity like negative words.

While we often take our words for granted, words can have a major impact on those around you.  We are careful of our physical movements or how we act towards others physically, but we usually give less thought to our words than we ought to.  We would rarely physically hurt someone deliberately, but we’ll toss words around casually.

We should consider the key place that our words take in our lives and our human natures.  Consider the following equation.

Words = Thoughts = Action = Habits = Character

Words lead us to think.  Our thoughts lead to action.  Our actions turn into habits, which in turn reflect or define our character. 

Words are powerful.  Some of the most powerful words are “I’m sorry” and “I love you”.  Use your words delicately.  They’ll take you places.  If you choose wisely, you’ll probably like where you end up.

1 comment:

  1. Cool. I like how you identify words as the precursor to thought. So often we think it's the other way around (and it can be), and miss symbiotic nature of word and thought.

    Thanks, Rob!

    Doug R.