For those of you who like to create, you know that you are never fully satisfied with what you produce. Sure it may get the grade or suffice for what you planned to accomplish, but the thoughts circling what you could have done differently or ways you could improve can grow in the back of your mind. Maybe after investing great measures of effort and time, you are Done by the time you’re done; don’t want to think about it, just want to move on. But maybe you go back, and go back, and go back, and can’t stop dwelling on things you could do or change to make whatever you made/produced/created manifest the ideas in your mind in a more accurate way.
Well, that is how I feel about what I write. Since coming home for the summer, I’ve revisited old papers and essays for further refinement and fine tweaking just because I think it’s fun (and because I’m a perfectionist, whoops). So some of the essays I post are more loved and tended to than others, but today I am posting the first essay I wrote for the Nonfiction Writing class I took this past spring at KU. It’s come a long way since then, and I’m certain I will pay it a visit again in a few weeks or months and mix things around yet again. One day I love it and am happy with the progress I’ve made, and another day I am frustrated by my inability to express exactly what I want how I want. But that’s just the way it is, I suppose! so all that to say, here are some thoughts on the power of words, which just so happens to be the clever title of my essay. Boom. Feedback welcome!
The Power of Words
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. -Proverbs 18:21
Long before I began, words existed. Even in my infancy, I babbled indistinct jargon to empty air. As a toddler, my parents spoke to me and urged me onward as I struggled to coerce meaning into form. With great exertion, I studied the shape of their mouths and attempted to recreate the sounds myself. Through practice, frustration, and failure, I learned words.
But after nearly two decades of befriending new words, there are still words left unlearnt. Each new introduction excites, confounds, and embarrasses me all in one breath. When I shy away, they beckon me to understand. Thankfully, the words are gracious to those who delight in their discovery. I live to encounter them; to be empowered by them. However, I have failed to remember this until just now, and this fresh remembrance peels the scab of a wound I’ve left untreated for far too long.
No amount of stitches could seal up this wound. My hands wrung together, willing the searing fire to subside, willing to forget the sting of the blade. But the penetration of a double-edged sword permits no man to walk away unscathed. I am no exception. The memory of my injury echoed and swelled in my mind, piercing me deeper and fiercer with each remembrance. Any compliment offered to me was like putting a cold compress on the head of a patient in need of heart surgery: a kind gesture, but naive at best. No earthly remedy can heal the wound caused by a rash remark, a reckless word, a biting tongue.
The words reverberated, transcending both time and space, tossing a pinch of salt into the festering puss with each visit. In one blazing breath, the levee was breached. Insecurities gushed forth from moments past to moments present. The words washed over me again and again and again, throbbing to the rhythm of a familiar pulse. Worthless. Ugly. Insufficient. Outcast.
The faces of the ones who introduced me to these words flooded my mind. The playground bully, the jealous friend, the past love interest, the inconsiderate classmate – one by one, their faces appeared and circled around me, each breathing their own kind of fire. They etched their scorching words onto my memory and my heart. Each recollection brought a new wave of hurt. Their flames engulfed me and I stood defenseless. Perhaps these dragons were right about me. Perhaps I was what they said.
My knees began to buckle beneath the weight of some sort of self-hatred or bitterness. But just before I collapsed to the cold kitchen tile, my mother’s arms encircled me from behind and secured me in an embrace. Her hushed whispers traveled through my ear into my aching sides, tenderly dressing my wounds with honey. Gentle reassurances momentarily cooled the scorching fire which ravaged my thoughts. My mother’s sweet lips massaged my burns as nourishing balm. Maybe I wasn’t as worthless as they said. Though words have destroyed me, they have also restored me. But sometimes my scars whisper to me in the middle of the night, reminding me, ushering me into the dragons’ lair where I am taunted by each rash remark, reckless word, or biting tongue that has ever wounded me.
Even as a child, I understood the weight of words and the value in speaking responsibly. I remember shutting the door of my fourth-grade classroom, double-taking to ensure no one was watching, and skipping along the empty hallway in search of the nearest drinking fountain. My eyes danced until they rested upon the rusted spigot. Suddenly, my innocent skip-to-my-lou developed into a nutcracker’s march. I swung my arms and stomped my feet to the beat of a distant war drum, stifling giggles at my own theatrical display. I was hilarious, giddy, free. At last I lowered my lips, gently twisted the nozzle, and felt the cool water trickle down the back of my throat. After several gulps, I straightened my back and my eyes zeroed in on a laminated poster taped to the wall. It portrayed a crying girl with her back turned from a group of laughing schoolchildren. My heart sunk as I read, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
What a lie, I thought. Why else would the girl be crying if she was not hurt?
Who wrote this?
Though I stomped back to my classroom, it was not a giddy stomp as before. I felt indignant at the injustice done to the crying girl in the poster. Even as a fourth grader, I knew words were far more powerful weapons than measly sticks and pebbles. I suddenly wished I was Mary Poppins and could leap inside the poster and watch the clip-art scene come to life. I would parade right towards the menacing pack of bullying children, stand on my tippiest-toes, and wag my finger in their mocking face. How could they not see the hurt they caused, the damage they’d done?
The artist of this poster flippantly dismissed the girl’s hurt – dismissed my hurt. Obviously, he has never entered the dragon’s lair; or perhaps, he has but is simply trying to forget. Perhaps he hopes that denying his injuries will ease the pain they bring. The very thought caused my own scars to burn. Rage pulsed through my body as I thought of the daggers digging deeper into the crying girl’s subconscious – into my subconscious. Feeble. Pathetic. Weak. I could see the fire on the bullying children’s breath as their words melted into her ears. Though pressed down upon on all sides, her dragons bid her to stand strong as they prodded her with white-hot prongs and secured their perpetual mark. I’ll bet her scars whisper to her at night, too.
To dismiss a reckless remark is to remove responsibility. This flippancy severs the cord of accountability between speaker and speech. As the mediums of our messages transitioned from slabs of stone to paper to screen, the weight of a word lost its wonder. Consider the scribe. He pauses – an ancient practice – before dipping his pen into his jar of thick, black ink. Fully aware of the repercussions of an error, he painstakingly paints each stroke with precision. He lives in an age unacquainted with a backspace key and where few can afford the price of an error.
But today, a text message mindlessly tapped out is just as soon deleted. Even this sentence was reconsidered, revisited, and revised. Our ability to communicate no longer springs from our dexterity of thought but the agility of our thumbs. Our words are no longer preserved in a weighty stone tablet. Instead, they are typed, deleted, and retyped – in a two pound, portable tablet – then launched into cyberspace to be received and deleted from an already cluttered inbox. But why not?
We are entitled. We have rights.
Does not every tweeted and retweeted thought deserve merit merely in its right to be said? Is it politically correct to correct a politically incorrect statement? I never can tell. Our cry for the freedom of speech made passage for the freedom from speech and the careful tending that should accompany it. Our tongues run rampant – never checked nor balanced. We demand our right to speak, but our flapping mouths pay no heed to how we speak. Because an error or offensive slip of the tongue incurs only minimal – if any – cost, our words are many and close between.
I fear I also am the rambling type. The filter between my head and my mouth is shorter than I’d like to admit. Sometimes I wonder if I even have a filter or if it got lost somewhere long ago in some prattling speech. Maybe I forgot I have one and, thus, never use it. In any case, I discover amusement in meandering the trail of my own thoughts and relaying my journey to others. I have never suffered from a scarcity of words. On the contrary, I am their abuser. I am apt to respond when spoken to and likely to speak until stopped. But the scribe towers over me, soliciting silence. “If you love the words, you will treasure them,” he cries.
When words are many, error is not absent. Even a fool who holds his tongue seems wise for he at least holds the appearance of revering the sanctity of a word well said.
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words wield the power of life and death. One flippant remark on how one should eat cake turned nation against queen and then off came her head. By the power invested in one man’s announcement, two lives are joined and beget more life still. On the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a bearded, honest man issued a proclamation declaring that all persons held as slaves would be then, thenceforward, and forever free.
A deceitful dictator once told a big enough lie so frequently that his followers ran camps where with the aim of teaching the world to decipher beauty in piles of misshapen bodies. When Sophie Scholl spoke out against that lie and called German youth to cast off their cloaks of indifference, the dictator silenced her once and for all. By the word of a King, a dream stretched over the expanse of history and cried for the equality of the emancipated. By the word of the King, dry bones rose from the grave and walked out of their tombs. The Word from the very beginning sighed that it was finished and up from the deep the dragon prince relinquished his keys.
With reverence comes escape.
At some point or another, I began to regard the words as my slaves. I made them toil on my behalf. Beneath my whip, they labored without rest. Though they were exhausted, I trafficked them through the night and forgot to feed them breakfast in the morning. I believed their usefulness to me fulfilled their purpose. I considered them as nothing more than a spoken sound, a written conglomeration of lines and curves and dots, existing only to serve me – the “autonomous” man, the benefactor – and my appetites. But today I realized I will soon be dead – be it in sixty years or in the morning – and the words will live on without me just as they did before me for the word and the Word cannot die.