Words: Powerful… Or Are They?

One of the comments left on the previous post inspired me to write a kind of follow up post on words, but this time to discuss their power. Coincidentally, I had just started to ponder on this when I heard on the news about an appalling event that has had everyone talking for the last couple of days, and that relates to this topic.  What happened is, somewhere in upstate New York, a bunch of middle school kids ganged up on a 68 year old woman who worked as a bus monitor, and while riding the school bus,  verbally (and may I add quite brutally!) attacked her. Or to use the term du jour for this, they mercilessly bullied her, bringing her to tears. You can watch the video of such regrettable situation here:

Bullying has become a major topic over the last few years, gaining national attention and media exposure since reaching the unfortunate height of causing children and teen suicides.  Bullying refers to unwanted aggressive behavior than can be either physical or verbal, or often both, and usually refers to interactions between school aged kids. The term bullying is not commonly apply to interactions between adults, or even young adults, because at this point aggressive behavior, specially physical or repeatedly  verbal abuse, can be considered a crime, either assault or harassment. Nevertheless, such bully behavior can and often happens also between adults. In this case, the issue that concerns me here is the verbal abuse side of it, no matter how old the involved parties are, and the power that words can have to be able to reach the status of abuse.

We are all well aware of such power, at least rationally aware, but not everybody is fully conscious of it. There are hundreds of quotes, from ancient to modern, that talk about such power. Some talk about the creative force of kind good words, being compared to tools that can build bridges, and some talk about the destructive force of mean evil words, comparing them to weapons. Yet, I’m not really sure the words themselves have such power.

Words are just words, they are innocent and powerless. It is we who have the power and attach it to the words. Words are empty until we give them meaning and intention. I had been thinking for a couple of days about this, and trying to figure out how to better express (with words!) such thought going thru my mind, when I stumbled upon this two quotes that seem to fit like a glove:

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
 
“Words are containers. They contain faith, or fear, and they produce after their kind.” Charles Capps

Aren’t they beautiful? The quotes I mean, the words in them, the thoughts they express!

Now, I know what you might be thinking, it doesn’t really matter if the words have power of their own or just by association, they can still create or destroy, therefore should be used with caution.  And that I completely agree with. Words should be handled with care and used as a tool not as a weapon, always. However, it does matter to know words don’t have power, it matters to know the power is ours and to be conscious of that distinction, and here is why: we have power over the words we use, yes, we know that, but we also have power over the words used against us, or hopefully for us. We have power over other people’s words. No matter what meaning and intention someone else gives to their own words, we still have the power to choose how their words will impact us. We have the power to decide whether they are true or not, to believe them or not, to agree with them or not. We have the power to choose to be affected by their words… or not. Even if sometimes we can’t help to be hurt by some words, because there are words that are hurtful by nature, we can still choose to let them hurt us like a pinch, that though initially painful, we can get over it quickly and doesn’t have any lasting effect on us; or let them hurt us like a dagger that deeply wound us and scars us forever.  In spite of whether the utterer is trying to use the words like a pinch or a dagger, it is ultimately up to us how we allow his words to touch us.

Now, getting back to the bullying topic, and so we can tie this whole thing together, here’s my take on it, fighting this problem requires a two sided approach. First, and the most obvious one, is to try to reach the bullies and get them to stop, which I think requires a sort of rehabilitation type of approach.  Second, and I would say most important, is to approach the victims and teach them about their power, the one I just discussed. And I say this might be more important because the reality is there will always be bullies, of all ages, and no matter how hard we try to stop them and/or rehabilitate them, in the end we don’t have any control over what other people are going to do or say; we only have control over ourselves and our own reactions, and we need to teach people, especially kids, to exercise this control for their own good. We need to teach them that the power of words doesn’t really reside in the words themselves, nor is it exclusively the speaker’s, rather it is mostly found in the recipient! They have the power, they’ve always had it, and even in the worst circumstances they still will.

So, there you go, that’s what is currently on my mind: words don’t have power, we do, use yours wisely!

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