Words

“You’ll be surprised who’s not going to make it.”

The director of my program uttered those words minutes after I finished my personal introduction. It was a standard meet and greet where all students entering the program stood, stated their name/hometown/major and listened to several department heads speak. Those words were spoken (in regards to college retention) at the summer orientation a few months prior to my first year in college echoed in my head nearly every day after. It felt as though this wise, cultured, supremely educated man had looked into my future and seen my fate. He was talking to an auditorium of around 60 other students, but it felt like a personal attack. Until that point, the thought that I may not finish my degree hadn’t occurred to me. While the director spoke those words under the guise of being “real”, I internalized and heard something completely different.

Imagine telling the mother of a healthy newborn, “Your baby may die tomorrow” logically it’s true but it does not edify anything. It serves no real purpose, and that was how I felt after I heard that statement.

A time that should be filled with excitement, new challenges and experiences had been soiled, and a seed of doubt planted. A seed that was watered by long-held insecurities and blossomed every time I didn’t perform my best on a test, procrastinated on a paper, made a mistake at one of my on-campus jobs. I lost respect for him as a leader that day and resented him for a long time. It wasn’t until a recent conversation with my sister that I realized that I had to forgive him. He probably can’t even remember that day or won’t imagine that his words were taken that way.

Let me make it clear that I am not blaming him for anything, only reflecting on the power of words. As briefly mentioned earlier, like many others I encountered many challenges during my college career. I take full responsibility of how I chose to respond to them.

During the past year, I have reflected on that period of my life often. An Interview of Author Karen Ehman on Focus on the Family reminded me of those words again. Ehman’s new book Keep it Shut: What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Say Nothing at All[1], details the biblical importance of minding what you say. During the interview (you can listen to it HERE ), Ehman also noted the harm in giving false praise and flattery along with abusive uses of words. While I have fallen victim to the negative power of words, unfortunately, I have also used them to abuse others. One moment starkly stands out.

It happened one day in my seventh grade English class. We had a free day-a day where we had to peer review our classmates’ papers (I NEVER liked that). As always, I had a pack of gum and the inevitable happened. EVERYONE wanted a piece, including *Chad A. Chad A. was one of the strange cases that happen in school. When he moved into my school district during the fourth grade, he was instantly teased and bullied. I could never figure out why. He wasn’t ugly, he wasn’t dumb, he could play sports and he wasn’t annoying. But, he was the designated enemy number one. When Chad A. asked for a piece of gum, instead of giving him one as I did the others, I told him:

“I’ll give you a piece of gum if you never speak to me again.”

And he didn’t.

The quip got me a few giggles from some of my classmates, but I hated how I felt afterward. It was mean, ugly, and I knew better. I wish that I could blame it on peer pressure, wanting to fit in or the fact that others didn’t like him. But I can’t. It was pure meanness. I remember that day with a face heated with shame at how I treated another person. I’m certain that there have been other moments in my life where the receiving party misinterpreted even my words that weren’t meant to be malicious. When events like that occur, it is easy to place the blame at the feet of the receiver:

“They’re just too sensitive.”

“But, I didn’t mean it that way.”

“It was totally harmless.”

“I was just keeping it real/I have to keep it real.”

Or the classic: “I was just joking.”

Once our words leave our mouths to be heard by others or our fingertips as they tap across the keyboard to post on various social media platforms, we have no control over how others may receive them. We can apologize, delete statements and backtrack, but that does not erase them from their existance. It is imperative to realize the strength of words before we use them. When I mention being mindful, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating muteness or passively smiling and nodding to get along and go along. I am only advocating reflecting on words and their power prior to releasing them from our being.

I often struggle with feeling like I’m not saying enough. As if I am biting my tongue instead of voicing a valid opinion or concern. Other times, I have the gift gab. I can talk ad nauseam about nearly anything or anyone. It is a daily battle to speak kindness and life, rather than gossip and negativity. As a human, I know that I will never perfect this skill but I aim to do better.

*Not his real name

[1]  Keep It Shut: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Say .., http://www.amazon.com/Keep-It-Shut-What-Nothing/dp/0310339642 (accessed July 20, 2015).

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