I believe words are powerful things. Words can, and do, change the world.
When I was a student in library school, a group of us took a road trip, driving the rolling hills of the Pennsylvania countryside from Clarion to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. We were excited by the prospect of hearing author Madeleine L’Engle speak in celebration of theology week. Some may remember that she wrote some children’s books, including A Wrinkle in Time.
Besides learning that another member of the audience, television’s Mr. Fred Rogers, was a dear friend of Madeleine, I also learned about the rapture that words can create. Madeleine’s talk was called “The Power of Words” and she delivered a truly powerful speech. This gifted orator spoke for nearly 45 minutes and the audience hung on every inflection. I did not want her to ever stop talking.
In the weeks following the event, I searched library catalogs for her books and the nascent public Internet for anything Madeleine. My searches led me to another speech that L’Engle delivered at the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. A quote from her 1983 “Dare to be Creative!” lecture became my mantra in library school, propelling me through the final months of study, reports, and exams.
The excerpt, which travels with me to each new library job I undertake, reads:
“We think because we have words, not the other way around, and the greater our vocabulary, the greater our ability to think conceptually. The first people a dictator puts in jail after a coup are the writers, the teachers, the librarians—because these people are dangerous. They have enough vocabulary to recognize injustice and to speak out loudly about it. Let us have the courage to go on being dangerous people.”
Over the years, I have seen what words can do. I learned a valuable lesson from one wise man who admonished me in the press for not using a strong enough word to describe the Holocaust. I was still young then, and learning where the lines of vocabulary are drawn. I have witnessed how some parents’ unthinking and repetitious harsh words lowered their child’s self esteem, robbing the adult in later life of his full potential. But thankfully, I have also experienced joy watching how the simple words “I love you,” voiced in a multitude of ways, using appropriate timing, can break down walls around a hardened heart.