Books. Plays. Movies. Lyrics. Poems. Speeches. Conversations. Whispers.
With so many ways to communicate with each other, yet such a limited amount of time to say any of it, we humans spend an excruciating amount of our very lives thinking about saying or writing things (aka using words), but then not actually saying or writing any of them. Why is this? Whether there are issues of the head that require resolution or matters of the heart that must be shared to find relief, we often wait too long to put them into words. Often never doing so.
Even in our daily lives, when we are forced to communicate, we increasingly tend to choose NOT to use words. They take too much time to hammer out with our thumbs on the face of a smartphone. We use abbreviations (LOL, OMG, I <3 U, txt me) or emojis. I have found myself spending so much time looking for the perfect emoji on my phone for a message that I could have written a whole letter in the same amount of time.
I am as guilty of these word related transgressions as any modern human. Moreso maybe. I do find occasion to jot something down when I have something on my mind. A letter. A card. A terrible poem. A Tweet. A Facebook post whose very brevity is intended to convey a whole range of thoughts and emotions. Those usually come out alright. At least they come out. The beginnings of a play. The first five pages of a movie. Those are, more often than not, slower to manifest themselves.
Where I fall down, though, is in saying actual words to actual people. Now that I think about it, this may be one of the reasons I wanted to be an actor. I loved saying other people's words. They saved me the effort of trying to be poetic or meaningful all by myself. (I've always been a better speaker than a writer, anyway.) I loved the sound of other people's words as they came out of my mouth. I could control how they were uttered even though I had no input into their creation. How often to we crib a movie quote to make a point? A Bible verse to teach a lesson? How many times has a Shakespearean Sonnet been whispered during a night of romance?
Some might argue this whole point with me. Some would say that actors become actors to express emotions. But actors cannot do this, even, without words. Actually being able to say them and move people by how well you can manipulate them is an actor's stock-in-trade. How effectively you can make people feel things by wrapping your mouth and tongue and teeth around sounds, is how you are measured. How you can make people believe that what they are seeing on stage or on film is real by the way you utter words, is your passion as well as your job. If you are really good at these kinds of things, then this is what makes you stay an actor. For an actor, words are transformative.
Words are also power. I had a boss once that was very disrespectful to everyone in the office. Everyone. None of us would say anything when this behavior occurred because, A) we were afraid of losing our jobs, and B) we knew nothing we said would possibly change this person. So we all endured. We would keep our words bottled up. Stifle our feelings. Contain our anger and insult. Then one eventful day, one person called the boss on the shit. Boom. The floodgates opened. What we hadn't considered was that all the while that we did NOT say anything, we were missing out on the therapeutic nature of words. Words can level the playing field, clarify, and correct.
Words can also be used as weapons. In real life, people can sling words to hurt, to insult, to control. How often do we sling barbs carelessly at a loved one in order to manipulate an argument or trick someone into a response. Weapon-words are hard to take back. They are like a bullet. Once they pierce the skin, they often get lodged there, infecting the surrounding tissue and causing lasting scars even after the surgery of removing them has long passed. Even after an apology, the sting and swelling caused by a weapon-word takes a while to mend. (A great example is the bullshit rudeness of people who say, "I'm just being honest." I hate that. I have NEVER heard that phrase used for anything other than being hurtful. In a way the speaker can shield him or herself from the responsibility of their words simply by saying, "I'm just being honest.")
My own use of words is often tested. While I try to be specific and articulate, yet still thoughtful and creative, I often doubt my results. Misunderstandings happen all the time, right? We all say things we wish we hadn't then dig ourselves ever deeper trying to figure out the structure and shape of the new words that will make everything better. Words are a responsibility.
I would never suggest that everyone has to tip-toe through their lives weighing each word like so much diamond dust. But there are times to do so. Often. Not to sound too much like a scold or an out-of-touch headmaster, but there are times we should, at the very least, be mindful of what actually comes out of our mouths and from our fingers and thumbs. Not just for others, but for ourselves. Anger can make us sloppy. Love can make us sappy. Emotions push every conceivable button in us. But like anything we work at, we should always want to be good at what we do. We should, as human beings blessed with the gift of language, desire the ability to communicate with each other in the best possible ways. We should also never take this gift of words for granted. In art, in love, at work, at home, at play, in politics, words mean things and we should ultimately ask ourselves to be good stewards of them.
This whole post is, actually, a very good illustration of my own challenges in using words. Admittedly, I just spent about an hour writing this, when I really should have just posted this quote from Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing :
"Words … They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more… I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead."
Okay, well, I guess I'll keep working on it.
Okay, well, I guess I'll keep working on it.
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