My niece, Ellie, who will be one next month, visited this past weekend. She is learning to speak and we marvel at every word that comes out of her mouth. “Dog,” she says, “woof, woof,” when she sees my pugs and then she pants like a puppy. Each word counts and when she doesn’t quite get one right or when she plays mimicking us, we listen, encourage, laugh. We enjoy the effort, because words count.
I am a writer; it’s how I make my living. Words are my business, but lately I am tired of them. They are everywhere – spewed, spit out, wielded. We use them to criticize, to judge, to intimidate. We use them to argue positions and to counterattack. Words become angry, loud, they lose nuance. We draw our line in the sand and forget to listen. We forget what my niece is now learning – words represent something, they possess meaning.
Thoughts, emotions, people are behind the words, most well intentioned, most with tender hearts, but they have lost themselves inside the words. Rhetoric replaces conversation and we attempt to be clever rather than convincing. We use words to advocate gun control and to fight against it. We brandish words in the name of God and volley them back to condemn those preaching them. We are not careful with our words. They have lost their specificity. We blather about the media, the liberal press, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, atheists, the Internet, television. We argue against It and Them, patting ourselves on the back for the aptly expressed barb. We forget why we were speaking in the first place.
I am tired of words. As a child in gym class I would freeze when balls came flying at me. They were too fast, too hard. I do the same now. What good do my words do if no one hears them, if my voice only adds to the fray? Even the well intentioned, those who try to listen, find fault, over-analyzing, turning meaning in and out. When we were children words came easily – we saw a dog and we called it by name. We attempted to find the word that fit. We looked closely at those around us to see if they understood and we felt pride when they did.
In this day when words are a commodity, expressed too freely, we would do well to remember the lessons of children, both those lost and those among us. We would be wise to think before we speak and remember that every word uttered from every mouth, no matter how different it may sound, represents a person whose heart beats like our own. Rather than barking at the wind, we might try listening, really listening to each other. It’s the only way our words will ever count.