I recently heard Maya Angelou speak about the power of words:
Words are things
You must be careful
Careful about calling people out of their names
Using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives
And all that ignorance
Don’t do that
Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words
I think they are things
I think they get on the walls, they get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs
In your upholstery, in your clothes and finally…
I believe this, mostly because I have always been very focused on words, sometimes to an extreme (my husband will attest to this). Who knows why, but I've always been very cautious and conscious of their influence.
I don’t think this is uncommon, especially for writers, but even as a little girl I had an interesting preoccupation with words. They felt big to me, they felt powerful – I noticed when words were unspoken, and I knew that once words were spoken, they were difficult to take back.
Maybe I was cautious to protect myself, to make sure that I didn’t get into trouble, or maybe I was unsure of myself and I didn’t want to speak out of turn, but I knew for sure that I fully “felt” words when they were said or written.
Words can bring tears to my eyes, which I love, but words can also cause me to wince, look away, or experience a headache. Some people say that words “roll off their back”; but for me, that’s never been the case. So when Maya says, “words are things”, I couldn’t agree more. But it’s not just the word itself; it’s the intention behind the word.
A swear word can be used to make a point or for humor, swear words are great when they add definition or emotion to an experience, but when swear words are used to offend, oppress, or frighten, the word takes on a whole different meaning. Words are a vehicle for expression, and it’s the intention behind the expression that causes them to have their “feel”.
So what I have really been attracted to is the energy and feel of a word, or at least how they feel to me, because each person has their own relationship with language, each word has a different feeling depending on your own life story.
Of course my favorite words tend to change depending on what's going on in my life, but right now, as I look toward 2013, the following five words keep coming up - words that stabilize my sense of being.
1. Contentment – A word that I aspire to, a word that evokes a sense of comfort and calm. Happiness feels like too much of a high, a high that can’t be sustained, but contentment feels like a way of being, regardless of what is happening around you.
2. Humility – We need to take responsibility for our actions, yet we don’t do anything by ourselves. We need to make our own way in the world, yet results are always co-created experiences. We can enjoy life and be our best selves, but the intention is to make the world a better place, not so we can be better than others. Part of humility is living in the paradox that while you are important and special, the world is not about you - you are a piece in the great big puzzle that somehow fits together. There is a natural perfection in the universe that I don’t fully understand and I won’t even attempt to articulate, but I do know it requires heart-centered attention and faith. An understanding of oneness, that we all play a role in something much grander than our thinking mind can comprehend.
3. Bravery – Many believe this word means “no fear”, but in actuality it means feeling fear, but moving forward anyway. I keep this in mind when I'm afraid or when my children are afraid because fear is completely normal and has nothing to do with age or maturity. It’s our response to fear that dictates the path of our lives – we can allow it to immobilize, or it can propel us to a new sense of freedom.
4. Quiet – It’s more socially acceptable to be extroverted than introverted, so I wasn’t always comfortable talking about my love affair with quiet. I love people, conversation, and group experiences, but at the same time I deeply enjoy silence and being alone. Not easy for me or for any other parent - our lives can be busy and noisy 24/7, but I have learned, often the hard way, that it’s worth the energy to find time for quiet. With doses of quiet throughout the day I am better able to connect with people (including my husband and children) in a way that feels authentic rather than forced.
5. Love - We may envision romance and partnership when we hear this word, but as we grow up, we realize it’s much bigger. Love is our natural state of being and the thing that connects us. It’s the inner awareness of our light and our ability to see the light in others, regardless of where any of us are on our journey. Love is a way of moving through the world and a way of relating to other people, because in every situation we really only have two choices – love or fear. And although fear has become the norm in too many situations, we know it's love that feels right. We know, deep down (and regardless of how corny it sounds), that love is always the right answer.
If there was a number six on this list it would be gratitude, because there is so much to be grateful for, we just have to make a decision to notice what’s working.
And I’m grateful for words, because they outline my life – through writing, reading, teaching, and intimate conversation – they inspire me and lay the foundation for where I want to go next. As Maya said, words are things, and they are, without a doubt, the things that keep me connected.