Words With Meaning

As an English literature student become writer and teacher, I am very fond of words. I wrestle with them in order to find the right ones to say.

But the biggest challenge is not in saying the right words, but in refraining to say words that lack value. I bemusedly confess to my friends that as a teacher I say much more than I would like to, yet in the moment my words never seem to be enough to effectively communicate the ideas I wish to convey in the classroom.

Two years ago I was deeply challenged by Henri Nouwen’s appropriately thin book on silence, solitude, and prayer, The Way of the Heart. The following passage increased my awareness of how full or void of power my words can be, when they are just more words in an ever-growing sea of babble. I must choose my words carefully. We all must, if we hope for our words to mean anything at all:

Words, words, words. Our society is full of words: on billboards, on television screens, in newspapers and books. Words whispered, shouted, and sung. Words that move, dance, and change in size and color. Words that say, “Taste me, smell me, eat me, drink me, sleep with me,” but most of all, “buy me.” With so many words around us, we quickly say: “Well, they’re just words.” Thus, words have lost much of their power.

Still, the word has the power to create. When God speaks, God creates. When God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), light is. God speaks light. For God, speaking and creating are the same. It is this creative power of the word we need to reclaim. What we say is very important. When we say, “I love you,” and say it from the heart, we can give another person new life, new hope, new courage. When we say, “I hate you,” we can destroy another person. Let’s watch our words.

Excerpted from Bread for the Journey and The Way of the Heart, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, ©1997 HarperSanFrancisco. All Scripture from The Jerusalem Bible ©1966, 1967, and 1968 Darton, Longman & Todd and Doubleday & Co. Inc.

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