Monday, May 01, 2006

Words that Hurt

“You’re not smart enough to be a writer.”

Stung by my father’s words, I fled the room in anger. No bee swarm could have inflicted more pain; no knife cut so deep, no fist hit as hard as did those eight words, uttered in a mean-spirited moment of carelessness some 46 years ago.

The words came in response to my simple statement that I’d changed one of my elective classes to high school journalism, journalism being as close to creative writing as one could get in those days. The first day of my sophomore year was over; at age 15 I was high on life’s possibilities, wired into the future, proud that I was beginning to take charge of my own life. Evidently, my dad wasn’t similarly impressed.

Looking back, I can see now that that’s where the problems started.

The following day I canceled the journalism class, signed up for a class I no longer remember, and proceeded to tune out of the high school curriculum. Soon, falling grades became failing grades. By the time I entered senior year I realized that school was failing me just as surely as I was failing at school.

Ironically, the two subjects that I failed were English and Social Studies, both of which would be among my top subjects were I to take them today. Sometimes the right things come along at the wrong time.

Is there a moral to this story? Of course there is.

If you are a parent, a role model, a mentor, employer, authority figure or friend, I urge you to engage your brain before you move your lips. Beware that the words you’re about to speak have awesome power, and that they should not be used thoughtlessly.

Language is mankind’s most powerful, most useful, and most commonly used – and misused – invention. Without language, few other inventions could exist.

Words of a spoken language – any language – are aural expressions of ideas. Words of a written language are made up of symbols that are visual representations of the sounds contained in the spoken word.

The words we say and write have infinitely greater power than most of us realize. Every day we use words in casual or careless ways, or in meaningful and purposeful ways, sometimes not fully aware of their incredible power.

Pundits and politicians use words to forge public opinion. Historians and futurists use words to rewrite history or shape the future. Scientists, academicians and philosophers use words to express complex theories, carry on intellectual discourse, or debate high ideals.

Words have the power to start wars or stop them, to build confidence or generate fear, to inspire to greatness or relegate to the dustbins of mediocrity, to express love or show contempt, to praise or ridicule, to wound or to heal.

When you talk to those who are important to you, beware that the effects of the words you use can last a lifetime.

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