This I Believe

Clare - Houston, Texas
Entered on October 13, 2008

I believe in the power of words. Words have power to change our minds, to make us stop and think, to set our feet in a new direction. Words can inspire us, deflate us, crush us, or make us determined to do something.

Words come to us in different delivery forms – sung to music, or matched to a visual presentation such as favorite TV show or movie. Words are delivered to us “live” in real-time interactions with people – our friends, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, or people we’ll meet, then never see again in our life – like the UPS delivery guy, or the airline ticket agent.

I believe powerful words in my life have strong visual memories attached to them – along a spectrum from good to bad memories. A lot of powerful words are favorites because I have heard them so many times, they are comforting to me. Words of my childhood prayer said with my dad, or favorite poems learned in grade school, favorite words found in classical books, and favorite scripture verses in the Bible.

In thinking about the power of words, I notice those I recall most are attached to a strong memory. Some are childhood memories when I was very vulnerable:

“Did you steal that candy from the store?” I was five and had just gone shopping with my mother at the dime store near my home. I stole a 5-cent pack of gum on my way out – something I had never done before or since. She marched me back into the store and made me return it to the store manager.

“Did you eat that frosting?” This one was when I was about 8 years old. My mother had let me frost a white cake with her homemade boiled white icing. The icing was still warm and smelled so delicious, that I licked the icing knife a few times. Some stayed on my upper lip, but I didn’t know that. My mom and aunt walked into the kitchen. It was a Sunday afternoon. I had gone to church with the family earlier that day. I knew it was wrong to lie. My mom kept a poker face and asked me if I had eaten any of the frosting, to which I replied “no.” My aunt covered her mouth with her hand and glanced at my mom. I thought I had convinced them. Then my mother said, “Go look in the mirror.” I did, and I felt so full of shame for lying, and then stupid for doing it. I never ate frosting while icing a cake again, at least not until I grew up.

As I got older, the power of words seemed to reach deeper inside me – words that touched the deeper dreams and desires of life:

In high school, after the classes were gone for the day, I was waiting around for my boyfriend to finish a sporting event. A teacher stepped out into the hall, looked at me and said, “If he makes you cry, he’s not worth it.” I wondered how he knew my pain. Ten minutes later, I got up and walked home. His words set me on a path to freedom of choice to get out of a bad relationship.

In my early twenties, these powerful words are locked in my memory:

“I love you – will you marry me?” and later, “I do”

Then “It’s a boy” – and again, “It’s a boy” – then finally “It’s a girl”!

Words can bring pain also, like,

“I want a divorce.”

Then “I want the boys, you can have our little girl.”

And the one that knocked the floor out from under me when I heard them:

“I don’t know if I’ve ever loved you.”

It’s strange the way human beings can appear so strong on the outside, and use our brains to solve difficult problems and threats. But words are like sharp invisible arrows penetrating all our defenses, powerful enough to crush our world or set us off balance.

It’s because of this that somewhere along this journey called life; I made a silent pact with myself to using encouraging words as much as possible. I remember it was a conscious choice I made just a few years ago, and it has worked to protect me in ways I’ve never expected. I’ve seen how it makes a huge difference in the tone of my day, and how other people respond. I’ve seen how it can turn someone’s day around, and send them off in a new direction. And it keeps me thinking more positive than negative.

I called the electric company to disconnect service at my old apartment. The operator answering my call has had enough complaints today, thank you, and doesn’t want to hear one more from me. I’m not calling to complain, but I’m greeted with short sentences and a tone that says “I really don’t want to know what your problem is lady.” I choose to be polite and patient on the line while she types up my request. There is a delay in retrieving the confirmation number. Again, more waiting. I think of things I could be doing, but I hold my tongue. Finally, I get the confirmation number, thank her for helping me, and wish her a good day. She actually sounds a little surprised, since she knows she wasn’t pleasant to me.

Another day, a co-worker tells me of her struggle to care for her elderly mom during a recent storm and power outage. She ran dangerously low on patience at home with her mom, and was glad to be back at work again. I shared some encouraging words with her about my own struggle with my mom’s frailty in her 90’s. My friend was glad to know she wasn’t alone in her burden of caregiving, and her guilt and resentment slipped a little farther away. Once again, the power of words set us both on a better path that day – a path looking forward to better days, and the determination to go on with life, in spite of hard times pulling you down.

I took some training at my church and learned “active listening” and how to talk to someone who is down “in the pit,” without getting pulled in there with them. Most people in the class were already doing the “listening and encouraging” thing on their own, without realizing it was something others did too and even had a name. We came to see it as a unique gift given to us by our creator.

Now I’ve come to see sharing the power of words as one of the most important things I do each day – trying to intentionally encourage people using words. Not just to my friends or people I love in my family …I like to give words away to unsuspecting people – like that lady with the telephone job – taking one call after another all day long.

I get joy out of hearing the surprise in their voice, or seeing the look in their eyes when they realize you’re not being cynical or poking fun at them – but you really are being encouraging. Just one human being speaking words of power, words of hope to another human being. This I believe.